A Letter to University Students in Need of a “Safe” Space from a Veteran

Dear University Students in Need of a “Safe” Space,

Today is Veteran’s Day. On this particular Veteran’s Day, university students and their professors across the nation are crying that they are traumatized by the results of Tuesday’s election claiming they need “safe” spaces to deal with the horror of Donald Trump’s election (There are dictionaries on campus to help with defining words like horror, tragedy, trauma, pain, and suffering in case they are needed.) Students are not attending classes and their professors are encouraging this infantile behavior by cancelling their classes and “protesting” with them. It is fitting in the face of this adolescent behavior to contemplate what I was doing when I was 18-22 years of age (I served 6 years, but most college students are 18-22).

I enlisted in 1999, during peace-time. I needed to pay for college, and while that was my initial reason for enlisting, that quickly changed as I learned of the real sacrifice of serving in the military. I am thankful that my military service did in fact pay for my Bachelor’s degree and it is now paying for my nearly completed Master’s degree. I am not saddled with $100,000 in debt I can never repay with a BA in Underwater Basket Weaving.

I was a linguist and my position required mainly desk work. That desk work meant that when I was 20 years old I was in charge of complex classified systems at a large government agency. I was doing work graduate students only dream of–I hadn’t even finished college at the time–but I was already fluent in a second language. You are claiming exhaustion and trauma from an election. I worked rotating 12 hour shifts for years without even knowing what day it was while entrusted–along with all of my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines–with the task of keeping this nation safe.

At 20 years of age the unthinkable happened. A real trauma and tragedy: 9/11. Overnight we went from peace-time to war-time. I found myself standing in front of the burning rubble of the Pentagon with 400 grieving family members. We stood in front of the tomb where 184 people had been murdered. Trauma is not when you don’t get your way. Trauma is a response to actual violence. An election going as elections go in a Republic is not a trauma. It’s the electoral process of this nation.

Three years after 9-11 I found myself trapped in the pain and real trauma of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had actual, not made up, PTSD. My relief work proved deeply painful and I had to pay a great sacrifice; one that so many of my fellow Veterans pay and carry today. You don’t have any idea what the need for a “safe” space is when you’ve never woken up from nightmares in a state of sleep paralysis alone in your bed across the ocean from your family or you had to run out of a movie theater, cower in a corner, and have a panic attack at the entrance because you didn’t expect the 9-11 movie trailer. The same goes for combat Vets when they see combat scenes. Hollywood can occasionally get something right, and they are pretty good at portraying flashbacks. You have no idea what it is like to give so much and carry that kind of tremendous weight your entire life. Being an undergraduate at a school where you are coddled, isn’t trauma. War, terrorism, violence, natural disasters, abuse, cancer are real traumas. Those of us with PTSD in the military, kept doing our jobs while getting treatment. We didn’t get to stop acting like adults in the midst of that suffering and neither do the men and women battling the scars of war today.

You and your friends are safe in your warm dorm rooms whimpering about your losses and how this country is going to fall apart and all of those “racist” voters will destroy this country. It’s much easier to label people than engage in actual intellectual debate based on reality and facts. I didn’t vote for Clinton or Trump, I exercised my free right to go third party, but I accept the election results because that is what we do in a free nation. The way you are acting implies your desire for a dictatorship based on your feelings and relativistic beliefs predicated upon nihilism. I know people of all backgrounds and races who voted for Trump. Just because you want something to be true does not make it true.

While you are playing beer pong and comforting one another in response to that “awful” Donald Trump, I have friends who have committed suicide from the trauma of war. I have friends who have died suddenly from injuries that occurred in war zones or on humanitarian missions. I have three cousins who gave years of their lives to war in the Marine Corps. I have friends who have been shot, blown up, and lost friends in IEDs. I have family still serving in the military.

Today we remember the people who serve or have served this great nation and who understand sacrifice in the face of tremendous pain and suffering. So, it’s time to put your big boy or big girl pants on and accept what has happened. It’s time to be an actual adult. You have no idea what a “safe” space is or what real trauma, tragedy, and suffering is like. I do and so do countless others.

Sincerely,

A U.S. Navy Veteran

Catholic Exchange: A 9-11 Relief Worker’s Dark Night and Healing

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was 20 years old and had been in the Navy just under two years. I was driving to work across the base I was stationed at just a few short miles from Washington DC when the first plane hit the twin towers. Like most people that morning I was confused by the news, but I walked into work just in time to see the second plane hit on the TV in the office. My co-workers and I crowded around a television in confusion and horror for about half an hour, and then, the Pentagon was hit. The base I worked on was a perceived top 10 target and chaos ensued. A friend of mine was standing next to me when the news broke about the Pentagon. She was 8.5 months pregnant and her Marine husband was stationed at the Pentagon. We were instructed to return to our Divisions. I told her that I would check in with my boss and come find her and stay with her until there was news about her husband. After that things get hazy.

I remember the piercing sun and the brilliant blue sky of that morning. The latter is something that most people who were in New York or DC remember about that day. I remember civilians running to their cars as all non-essential civilian personnel were instructed to evacuate the base. I worked on a base with over 20,000 employees, to give you an idea of the chaos. After checking in with my boss, I found my friend and we barricaded ourselves in a room in the Marine barracks and waited. I only remember the terror I felt and the concern I had for my friend. I remember jet engines flying overhead as we braced for impact. Hours went by when we finally got news that my friend’s husband had hiked up I-395 and had found a ride home. He was safe. The phones were jammed until evening, so I also remember the relief in my own father’s voice when he heard me say that I was safe. He was concerned that I had been at the Pentagon that day for some reason. Given the line of work that I did, that would have been a possibility.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange…

Grace and Healing on 9-11: Praying for the 9-11 Terrorists

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I have been going through a period of deep spiritual struggle.  It has been the kind of struggle that bears much fruit.  These struggles are deepening my faith and teaching me to rely on Christ’s will for me, rather than my own will.  My eyes have been truly opened to different aspects of Christ’s betrayal and the Cross.  Today revealed to me just how much God’s grace is working in me.  The only source of my understanding is Him.

Today is the 13th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  It is a deeply difficult day for thousands of people personally, and a day of mourning and remembrance as a nation.  The last 13 years of my life have been shaped by my 9-11 experiences.  Three years after my relief work,  I suffered through a few years of debilitating PTSD.  After absolutely stellar treatment from some of the world’s top EMDR and PTSD specialists, I have been able to live with those memories.  I live with next to no PTSD symptoms, from that period in my life.  One aspect was still in need of healing and that was a spiritual dimension.

As Christians, we are called to pray for our enemies.  As Catholics, that includes the dead.  I have never been able to bring myself to pray for the 19 hijackers, until today.  At 9:37am this morning, at the exact same time Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, killing 184 people, I started to pray a Rosary before holy relics of Our Lord’s Cross (yes, the actual Cross of Jesus).  As I started my Rosary, I began to list my petitions: the families of the killed, those killed, the relief workers, etc.  Then I got the thought to pray for the terrorists’ souls.  At first, I could not utter the words.  I began to sob in utter agony.  I fell onto all fours and sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes.  I had the sense (eye of faith) that my Guardian Angel was there comforting me.  The Agony in the Garden came to mind.  I finally got back up on my knees and through my sobs, prayed for the souls of the terrorists and those who terrorize today.   It was the hardest Rosary I have ever prayed in my life.  I sobbed and shook throughout it, but I knew Our Lord and Our Lady were with me.  When I finished, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of me.  The sobbing stopped and peace set in.

Some of you will read this and respond in anger.  Some of you will not understand praying for the souls of the dead, especially those who chose evil.  Catholics, unlike a lot of other Christian denominations, pray for the dead constantly.  But, some of you will understand why this is significant, and why it is necessary.  I had to walk into the Garden and cry out in agony. I chose courage.  I walked towards the Cross.   Something that I have avoided for well over a decade.  I knew those prayers would be hard.  It is only by God’s grace that I was able to utter them.  To release my own anger at those 19 men, who murdered so many, and left me in the throngs of PTSD 10 years ago.  This was God’s doing.  In choosing to let go, He was able to heal my hurt.  It is hard, but in confronting deep pain, with God as our guide, we are set free.

What agony do you need to confront?  Let God heal you.

What 9-11 Means to Me This Year: From a Relief Worker

This is very close to where I stood with 400 grieving family members a few days after 9-11.
This is very close to where I stood with 400 grieving family members a few days after 9-11.

9-11 means a lot of different things to people.  Everyone has a story of where they were on that day.  I just happen to be one of those people who spent 45 days smack dab in the middle of the pain, agony, and destruction of 9-11.  On 9-11 I was stationed at a large intel base.  We were considered a top 10 target and a mass evacuation of non-military personnel started right after the Pentagon was hit.  I don’t remember much because it was so chaotic and terrifying.  What I do remember is my friend was 8.5 months pregnant with her first child, and her then husband worked at the Pentagon.  The phones were jammed, so we waited until early evening before we knew that he was safe, having hiked up I-395 to get a ride back to our base.  I stayed with her all day to make sure that she was ok.  We huddled inside the Marine barracks, terrified of every jet engine we heard over head.  Our base was in the BWI flight path.   I remember a blazing sun against a crystal blue sky.  I remember people running frantically.  I remember armed Marines running with M-16s to secure our base.  I remember bracing for impact and being sure that death was coming.  I had never been that terrified in my entire life.  I don’t think anything else has matched it since (other than when the PTSD was rally bad 10 years ago).  Thank God!

Once the initial attacks cleared, my reaction was that I needed to help.  I lived a few miles from DC.  I needed to do what I could to help those in need.  Rather unexpectedly, a friend of mine, with a similar drive, said that she was being sent by our base to serve the families of those killed at the Pentagon.  I said that I was going with her, and so 8 of us from my base went to the Pentagon Family Assistance Center to serve the surviving families.  The Navy lost more people than any other branch or Agency, and they wanted us there in uniform in case the families wanted a Sailor to talk to and also to serve them in any capacity necessary.

The first few days were agony.  I witnessed the deepest in human suffering.  My 20 year old heart and mind, was not prepared for this level of pain.  My faith was still young and weak, and it was not my primary rock throughout that period.  I had to fight my own tears, in the face of hurting, mourning people.  A few days after the attack, I stood in front of the crash site with over 400 mourning relatives.  I knew that I was staring into the abyss of Hell.  Only Hell could bring such destruction and barbarity.

While 9-11 will haunt me for the rest of my life, I did witness the strength of the human spirit.  The first couple of weeks were devastating.  The wounds were deep and fresh.  Families waited helplessly for news of their loved ones.  No one survived the attack, and all 184 perished.  When bodies started to be returned to families (what was left of their loved one), families had a sense of relief.  Over 40 bodies were never recovered.  Once this phase began, I noticed a shift to healing.  The pain was deep, but there was the very beginning of hope and healing.  By the end of my 45 days as a relief worker, the families had returned home to begin to re-build their lives.

9-11 is a defining moment in my life, because, unlike the majority of the world, I was actually a part of the event.  I was there in all its horror.  This day has meant many things for me:   pain, agony, suffering, tears, mourning, nightmares, night terrors, flashbacks, hope, love, courage.  Today it means:  prayer.  These people who perpetuate this type of evil are still murdering thousands of people throughout the world.  The leaders of the West are impotent in the face of this evil, quite frankly, because in their nihilism they do not know good from evil, or evil from good.  So I wage the spiritual battle and I pray, fast, and give alms.  That is how I best serve the memories of those I met and their loved ones.  It is how I best served those being persecuted abroad.  It is how I best serve the persecutors.  So PRAY and pray hard, for the conversion of souls, for those murdered today (and every other day), the families, and the relief workers.

And, yes, because my 9-11 experiences make me feel a deep connection to the persecuted, check out Help Nasara to give alms.  We are trying to serve the suffering.  God bless you always.

We are on Facebook: www.facebook.com/helpnasara

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A PTSD Catholic

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In 2004 I was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD. It took three years for my 9-11 relief work to catch up with me. While most 20 years olds were partying in college or worried about exams, I was consoling 400 people whose loved ones had been murdered in the Pentagon. I had only been in the Navy two years and ended up being a part of one of the most historic and horrific events of my generation.

I was raised in a nominal Catholic home. We went to Mass often, but that was the extent of our involvement in the Church. I had fallen out of going to regular Mass on Sundays by the time I volunteered to help after the attack on the Pentagon. I still read theological works, but was separated from His Church. I did go to Mass while I was a relief worker and my Mass attendance did improve in its wake, but I was still a cultural Catholic. 9-11 was the catalyst that brought about my PTSD. There were a lot of other factors, but this single event triggered it.  Look at the picture below.  I stood there with 400 grieving families members looking at this sight straight from Hell.

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There are a lot of stereotypes and stigma associated with this mental illness. People like the Veteran who murdered people in Florida recently do not help the situation. The media perpetuates a lot of myths about the disease, while claiming compassion for the thousands of Veterans who live with this condition. The vast majority of us, are the types who work ourselves into the ground and then collapse. We take on more than we can handle, but don’t realize it until it is over. We run into danger with little thought of the long term consequences. We want to help others, but sacrifice ourselves in the process.

My PTSD manifested while I was living alone and stationed in the United Kingdom. It began when I literally cried for a week straight. My father had had a serious health scare and it was the last straw. I went to my Leading Petty Officer (LPO) and he had me go to the Air Force Base for medical care. I was on a British base so the nearest hospital was a 2 hour drive. The doctor threw different medications at me and that was that. I then started having horrific nightmares, night terrors, and panic attacks. The telltale flash backs began as well. The military continued to throw medicine at the problem while I spiraled further and further into the pit. At this point I was active in the small parish in town and attending Mass each Sunday.

I finally checked myself into the hospital for a month. Thankfully, the one thing the military did do right was get a contract with the top London mental health facility. How, I do not know? Mick Jagger was treated at the hospital I stayed in. Finally, I had doctors who were concerned with treatment that encompassed psychotropic medication and psychotherapy. It was there that I was introduced to EMDR. The single most effective treatment that I have undergone for my PTSD symptoms. The point of EMDR is to help each patient piece together memories of the event. Part of the problem for PTSD sufferers is that we have major memory loss about the event and can only remember it in pieces. Our brains cannot process incomplete memories. EMDR seeks to remedy that situation. I eventually left the hospital and continued treatment until I decided to leave the Navy after my 6 year contract was up. I had active PTSD symptoms for about 5 years.

Nowadays, I am able to function normally with my 9-11 experiences. Things have complicated a bit after having three miscarriages and serious hormone deficiencies. My PTSD symptoms have manifested in the wake of my most recent miscarriage that was traumatic in that it required emergency surgery because I hemorrhaged. I have recognized some avoidance symptoms in myself and it looks like I may need to look for an EMDR specialist in the area. PTSD does make it difficult to handle new traumas.

So, how is this tied to my Catholic Faith? It is a Cross. I have a very hard time resting calmly in the Lord’s arms. I am always pushing forward and running away. I am extremely restless, which impacts my family and my relationship with Our Lord at times. PTSD sufferers tend to drown out their pain through: drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, etc. My tendency these days is food, as I am actively trying to live a life of holiness and avoid super risky behavior. But, it is still an unhealthy, and at times sinful, way to avoid the pain. There is a deep ache that lives inside of me because of what I have seen, what I have lost, and what I have experienced. I will spend time running away from Christ, only to collapse and beg for His mercy. It takes me a while to remember that He loves me and will extend it freely.

PTSD sufferers do not tend to talk about their experiences. Why? First, because a lot of people cannot possibly understand what we have been through. Can you understand combat, a terrorist attack, rape, abuse, etc, if you have never experienced that kind of horror? No. Unfortunately, while we should talk about it, most of us have experienced the dumbest and most unkind words from people. “Suck it up”, is not a proper response. Yes, this is based on ignorance, but it is hurtful. Second, we do not want to burden people with our suffering. We tend to be the caretaker types, we want to help others, but do not want to add to other people’s struggles. Third, media stereotypes make it even harder. I had to think seriously about writing this post, because of how it could be misconstrued.

There are a lot of stereotypes about PTSD. Hollywood tends to make movies where the Special Forces Veteran murders people while having flashbacks. I have worked with Special Forces guys and they are not a bunch of sociopaths. This is so unbelievably rare. In fact, the highest risk for PTSD sufferers is suicide. We tend to suffer in silence, rather than lash out at others. Stop taking information from the media, they are doing more harm than good.

For me, I know deep down that I will remain restless and on the run until I rest in Christ. The problem is, learning how to rest in Christ. I have been in flight mode for so long that I struggle to disengage, even now. I went from PTSD to three miscarriages in a few short years. It was a constant stream of pain and grief. It makes it very hard to “Be still and know that I am God”. I know that is where I belong, but some days it is much easier to drown my sorrows in copious amounts o sugar. Then the self-loathing begins anew and the cycle begins again. Thank God, Our Lord is patient.

 

Mental illness is a clear path to Golgotha. It is a heavy Cross to bare, especially in a society that is either fearful or apathetic about those who suffer from PTSD or depression. With so many mass shootings, people think that all mentally ill people are psychopaths. This could not be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that you may work alongside someone who sufferers from PTSD, depression, or anxiety and not even know it. If you are blessed enough for someone to open up to you about their struggles be sure to show compassion, even if you yourself don’t get it. That person chose YOU to share with in their battles. As Christians, we should be helping one another in love and mercy. All of us are waging a serious battle with sin and suffering. Let’s help one another to learn to rest in God.