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Getting It

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Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.

Chaplains today help people process their feelings and make sense of what they are experiencing whether it is terminal illness, plane crashes, or combat.

Listening to those primarily impacted by traumatic events, helps identify immediate needs expanded to include the whole person---body, mind, and spirit. Yes, there are human needs of food and shelter, however after catastrophes the primary needs are information and reassurance. Am I safe? Is the battle over? Are my loved ones safe? My dogs? Will there be another earthquake?

Reading Marlantes was parallel process for me. How my former work as a disaster chaplain manager for a major humanitarian organization resonates and helps me empathize with what he experienced, the wisdom gained, and shared so eloquently. How disasters wash away houses and other physical structures, but also traumatize the emotional and spiritual health of those impacted. How can you eat or sleep at a shelter, if you don't know if separated family members are safe and alive?

Likewise, coping with military deployment today includes preparing and supporting entire family systems so that our warriors can focus on their primary mission--to protect, serve, and defend. Marlantes reminds us just how far we have come---and how much further we need to go---to prepare our nations youth for military service---not just for combat and mission success---but also the consequences of how mission success may be defined.

Soldiers are called warriors today. And, the emotional and spiritual impact, the political and economic impact of PTSD, veteran and active duty suicides are no longer acceptable as the cost of battle.

Marlantes went to Yale. He was a Rhodes scholar. And, yet, it took him 40 years to begin to process, to understand what he really went through in combat. For his generation (and mine) Vietnam was real. It's more than a movie starring Charlie Sheen or a Maya Lin artwork. The Vietnam War really happened. Marlantes could only have written this book now, after forty years away from Indochina and combat. After 40 years of incubation, meditation, reflection, and pure pain and suffering. Having a family and self-medicating with geographic cures, distractions amidst despair, and how can I make sure others today do not repeat the same mistakes, the absence of preparedness, that extended the call of duty and service, if not physically, but an emotional and spiritual lifetime.

In July 1965, I was fourteen years old and at Boy Scout Camp when President Johnson announced the Vietnam troop escalation. Around the radio, the older Scouts knew they were going to war. With the draft ramped up in the next months, 25% of that years' senior class got pregnant and, therefore, a draft deferment. Another distant war for the children of the greatest generation, memories of uncles at Normandy and in the South Pacific, a cousin killed during Korea, and, now another war to contain communism in Indochina. Family memories of pride tempered with future alcoholism visits to cemeteries on Memorial Day, car wrecks and cancer, all family disasters in their own way. Addiction may not be considered a traditional definition of disaster, however ask the spouses and children of veterans if it was a disaster for them. Today, we know entire families serve their country, some deployed, some remaining home. The front line may not be only the trenches abroad.

War, therefore, may be the greatest 'disaster' though much danger lies in comparisons. How one expands upon traditional definitions of disaster; tornadoes and poverty, floods and neglect, wildfires and hunger, plane crashes and cancer, the failure to negotiate a just and lasting peace; all may be defined as disaster, but how we prepare and respond to each event shares some common goals---rescue and recovery, needs assessment, removal of non-combatants, treatment, maintaining order and safety, protection from those who may do harm, those who may compound the injury.

In his first paragraphs of What It Is Like to Go to War, the impact of untreated trauma is now filtered through other recent conflicts and treatment options. We now know so much more about the impact of combat, and now are compelled to look back even further.

Both in combat and in disaster, preparedness is essential. Preparing is caring. Preparedness may not be as sexy as response. Basic training may pale before real battle, but each is uniquely interrelated and non-negotiable.

Today, attention is paid to wounded warriors in body, mind and soul. In earlier times as well as today, it's part of the "cost" of battle. But, how combat impacts the home front---from veteran suicides, homelessness and addiction, domestic violence, etc.----this litany is not posted upon the doors of recruiting stations and after September 11th, this would not have profoundly impacted enlistment anyway. The complexities can't be denied. It's more than numbers killed and wounded in combat today. You are a veteran forever.

Supporting the troops may mean delivering an emergency message like a death in the family, a birth, or a miscarriage. It's about telling the truth as Marlantes has done about the real cost of battle. It's about boot camp and the continuum of care, of command and consequence.

The anecdote in the first chapter about the inept chaplain is telling. Today, more chaplains have intense clinical training and work with military mental health professionals seamlessly. In the past, for well meaning and substance abusing chaplains, Southern Comfort was communion for the spiritually wounded, forever scarred. For others, it was another way to self-medicate and remain comfortably numb.

No one gets over anything.

There are opportunities for spiritual preparation today. Chaplains working with our warriors can be vital to mission readiness including their spiritual preparation. All wars are religious. All conflicts are spiritual. September 11th wounded so many souls and injured so many spirits.

What makes chaplains and their professional spiritual care colleagues unique has much to do with establishing and creating rituals based upon individual and community need---after mass fatality disasters and after death in combat. Whether ancient liturgy or contemporary personal voices or shared prayers spoken or in silence, rituals matter.

Initiation is ritual. Whether into combat or manhood, initiations create extraordinary bonds and emotions of loyalty, and, for some, abuse. Look at the late Tim Hetherington's photos of Sleeping Soldiers taken within a combat unit in Afghanistan. Look at the photo entitled, "Pink Belly", a soldier after hazing, initiated into a fearless circle of comrades facing death at any moment. He looks ecstatic after this ritual. He is now a member of an extraordinary group of frontline warriors; his face is full of joy and suffering. This day, he is here and fully supported. Tomorrow, or forty years from now, where will he be? Will he be able to take care of himself? Will he be prepared to come home? Will he live?

Marlantes is helping us to identify what we still need to do.