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The battle after the battle

ELMIRA, Ore. (BP)–“What’s your problem? Just park the truck!”

Sgt. 1st Class Bruce Cutshall shouted at his wife and son as they looked for a parking space. When his son finally parked the pickup, Cutshall slammed the door and stalked across the parking lot.

“Within 15 or 20 steps, I knew what I’d done,” he recalls. “I knew they were sitting in the truck thinking, ‘They told us he’d be kookin’ out.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I was just in Iraq making life-and-death decisions. Now my family’s deadlocked over choosing a parking space.'”

Cutshall couldn’t believe he was already lashing out. During the last year in Iraq, all he’d wanted to do was come home to be with his wife LaDonna and their two sons, Jim and Jeremiah. As a National Guard medic he’d seen death and destruction from all angles. Now, his family had picked him up at Fort Lewis and he thought the nightmare was over.

It wasn’t. Cutshall’s fight to reintegrate into civilian life was just beginning. Two years later, the 45-year-old veteran is back to being a husband, father, firefighter and wrestling coach. But he’s still coming to grips with the war’s effects on his daily life. The jumpiness and hyper-vigilance. The nightmares of injured and dying soldiers whom he can’t help — sometimes with the faces of his own sons. The constant irritability. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis.

“I used to think people who claimed PTSD were a bunch of sissies,” he says. “We’d be out on a fire and meet homeless guys living in the bushes who’d say, ‘I was a medic in Vietnam,’ and I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah — get over it!’ Now I think, ‘Maybe those guys were in ‘Nam and had their wires fried.’ I know it’s real. I have a tendency to be more sympathetic.”

Cutshall says 90 percent of the vets in his unit have divorced since returning to the States. Nationally, suicide among veterans is twice the national average. And about one in five returns from the battlefield with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cutshall worries about this new generation of servicemen and women. A longtime Christian, he’s mentored many young men in his hometown of Elmira, Ore. Some of them he convinced to join the military. In Iraq, his tent became an unofficial chapel.

“I remember one big, strong, fit young killer coming in and asking, ‘Are you the God guy?” Troubled over his eternal destiny, the soldier told Cutshall, “I’m in the lead rig tomorrow, and the guys in the lead rig always get killed.”

“He accepted Christ, and we baptized him in this big crate lined with duct tape. You had to do it fast because it leaked.”

The soldier wasn’t killed, but now he and many like him are facing a new challenge on American soil — reintegration. They’ve learned how to be warriors; now they’re becoming civilians again. The task is daunting.

The good news is that American families and churches can help. They can play important roles in the lives of veterans coming off the battlefield, says Richard Meyers, chairman of the psychology department at Corban College in Salem, Ore. An Army National Guard chaplain for 30 years, Meyers has counseled many vets. He holds troops in high regard and reminds families that their loved ones will come back from war dramatically changed.

“When they come home, they can often be standoffish,” Meyers says. “Their minds and hearts are somewhere else. If you can’t identify directly with their experiences, they often won’t take the time to describe what they went through.”

The parents of vets often find their son or daughter has “grown up overnight,” and families must negotiate brand-new relationships. Sometimes vets are aggressive or they withdraw in social situations. They may not feel satisfied with a mundane job after experiencing life and death on the battlefield.

Meyers urges families to be patient with their loved ones. Be ready for them to share — but don’t push them to do so.

That’s key, Cutshall agrees. Soldiers are trained to protect — and sometimes that means protecting their families from the harsh realities of war. The memories seared into his psyche — seeing Iraqi children killed by bombs, cleaning burning flesh out of armored vehicles, watching soldiers die on patrol — these are things he doesn’t like to recount.

“And then a lot of guys won’t talk about it because they instantly lose emotional control,” Cutshall says. “It’s like opening Pandora’s box.”

So, families, pastors and church members who ask how things were “over there” must be ready to listen. That takes time, says Rahnella Adsit, associate national director of staff and troop care for Campus Crusade Military Ministry and parent of a Corban College student. She and her husband Chris travel throughout the country training Christians how to, among other things, support vets.

“In the churches, we have to stop being afraid,” Adsit says. “Most people are afraid to deal with each other’s pain. We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone.”

Campus Crusade Military Ministry has begun organizing conferences for churches that want to help. In February, leaders of the 8,000-member Times Square Church in New York City went through training on PTSD and reintegration. The ministry is planning another conference in Houston, Texas.

“America’s churches have been asleep on this,” Adsit says. “Most of the military forces are cutting back chaplains, and all the chaplains are overworked, so we’re starting to partner with churches.”

Adsit notes that vets can find it difficult to reenter church life after returning from war. They feel different and don’t always know how to bridge the gap, so she encourages churches to start support groups and Bible studies for vets, by vets. Now is the time for older veterans to reach out in ways that no one else can.

“Unless you’ve been in combat, you don’t know what it’s like,” said one Vietnam War vet and Corban alumnus. “It’s like going to Mars and coming back.”

What about family members and church members who aren’t vets or counselors? What do they have to offer?

Plenty, says David E. Collier, a licensed psychologist at the Salem (Ore.) Vet Center, one of many such centers operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offering free counseling to those who have served their country. Collier has worked with vets for 30 years. These days, the majority of those he sees are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction or depression.

“Vets often come back and are unable to sleep. They will often use drugs and alcohol to get to sleep, but that’s not a good coping strategy,” Collier says.

Here’s where family influence comes in. Many vets won’t seek help at their local vet center — or anywhere else — until the people closest to them point out problems. That concern from family members can be enough to convince him or her to finally ask for assistance.

“A person will come home from war, go back into the family and deny there are any problems,” Collier says. “Then, they’ll start getting feedback from the family like, ‘You’re not sleeping’ or ‘You’re irritable all the time.’ That’s where the family becomes important.”

As Adsit talks with Christian leaders all over the country, she likes to describe each church and family member as -– simply — a bridge.

“We want to be a bridge of healing that brings the wounded warrior to God, who is the healer. We’re not the healer, but we’re conduits for the healer,” Adsit says. “We don’t fix people, but we can listen. All of us can invite Christ to join us in the pain, and He will meet us in that deepest part of our being.”

The vets whom Meyers counsels often are looking to order their experiences and climb out of their mental foxholes into the future. Their theological questions get right to the point: How do I know I’m saved? Is God really in control? How do I reconcile my feelings of anger toward the enemy with Christ’s commands to love? Meyers goes step-by-step through the Bible — Romans is a favorite — to aid servicemen and women in making sense of the world.

“So many of them want to know, ‘How do I start living again? How do I start changing how I think and move forward?'” Meyers says. “So we talk about how God has a plan for their life and how to turn faith into action.”

On a basic level, Meyers encourages vets to identify their passions — the things they enjoy or have always wanted to do — and start pursuing them. In counseling sessions, one vet relayed that he’d always enjoyed making knives. Meyers encouraged him to start selling his handiwork online.

“It wasn’t too long before people were bidding like crazy on eBay, and he saw that he was really good at this. That was encouraging,” Meyers says.

As vets reacquaint themselves with civilian life, no one should expect the effects of war to disappear, experts agree. Battlefield experiences can permeate everything about a person, right down to the chemical levels in his or her brain. Upon return from Iraq, Cutshall’s doctors told him the stress had sapped his reserves of serotonin, the natural “upper” produced by the body. Other vets come back with bodies tuned to operate on high doses of adrenalin, Collier explains.

Cutshall has found it impossible to turn off his new hyper-vigilance. For instance, during firefighting training one day, he was standing at a car’s open hood when one of his co-workers bumped the horn.

“My knees were locked, but somehow I moved 12 feet away,” he said. “My hands were shaking and everyone was looking at me. I said, ‘Whoa, Pavlov!’ The other firefighters understood: ‘Oh, Bruce has been in a war zone.'”

Now Cutshall is fighting for peace in his own heart and soul. While he’s unable to control all his responses, he battles to stay close to God and show love to his family. He wants to help other vets and knows his first task is to seek his own healing. As he pursues that, he is unembarrassed to ask for prayer and support.

“My plan of attack is to be active,” he says. “I want to be the guy who says, ‘I’m having a hard time, but here’s what I’m doing about it.’ I’ve got to face my fears right out in front of everybody. I’m going to head in the direction of coping. I believe in the bridge God is building for me to get from one side to the other.”
Christena Brooks is a journalism instructor at Corban College, which is affiliated with the Northwest Baptist Convention.

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