The pre-war Pastor Matthew Williams had gone to seminary, was ordained and thought he understood why people suffer. “God allows suffering because this world is temporary,” is how he would have put it.
Then came two deployments as an Army chaplain, one to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. Williams spent a year in an Afghanistan morgue unzipping body bags and “seeing your friends’ faces all blown apart.” He watched as most of the marriages he officiated for fellow soldiers fell apart. He felt the terror of being the only soldier who wasn’t armed when the mortars dropped and bullets flew.
This Memorial Day weekend, Williams is no longer an active-duty military chaplain nor a United Church of Christ minister. He is a guitar player on disability whose outlook on God, religion and suffering was transformed by post-traumatic stress.
“I thought I had a handle on suffering. I thought I had a handle on understanding the sovereignty of God. I didn’t know crap,” said Williams, who now travels across the country, performing music and visiting other suffering veterans in what he sees as a new kind of ministry. “At the end of the day, what I know now is: I’m alive, I believe in God, I have faith, and that’s where it stops. It doesn’t get much deeper than that.”
“I don’t think anymore that there is some grand design,” he said “It just is.”
Perhaps the roughest parts of war — mortality, suffering, the seeming randomness of life — are supposed to be a chaplain’s bread and butter, their expertise. The 5,000 active-duty men and women often called “Chaps” are the ones soldiers seek at all hours, under strict confidentiality, to share their darkest acts, doubts and fears — even the suicidal thoughts that could end their military careers. And yet chaplains experience post-traumatic stress, too, while carrying out their unique mission to shore up others.
The Rev. John Weatherly’s deployments to Bosnia in 2001 and Iraq in 2006 convinced him that chaplains respond to trauma much as other soldiers do: They get scared, they hide fear, they grown numb.
“It’s normal to have nightmares, to cry when you listen to the news,” said Weatherly, a retired Army colonel who serves as rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, has completed workshops on post-traumatic stress and now serves as a facilitator to others. “I know fear. I know what it’s like to be scared and yelling the 23rd Psalm at the top of my voice.”
On the other hand, the last thing a commander wants is a weak chaplain, said Anthony Pantlitz, 53, a retired chaplain with the Air Force. “The chaplain is supposed to be the one that is unbroken,” Pantlitz said. “When soldiers see a chaplain is broken, they feel it’s okay for them to be broken, too. Other soldiers — okay. But a man or woman of God is not supposed to be broken.”
A father of five, Pantlitz fills journals with stories of a Thanksgiving mortaring in Iraq, where he saw three security guards charred “like burned meat.” For a time, he lost his faith altogether. It returned with a new, different force, but the numbness, flashbacks and deep isolation remain.
“A still small voice frequently asked me, where is your God?” he wrote recently in his journal. “I feel so alone in this world. I am so isolated and alienated from people, the world, and myself. I feel like a Prisoner of a War who has been forgotten on the battlefield.”
A chaplain’s loss of faith is a particularly unfortunate cost of war, say experts who believe spiritual community and routine help long-term healing. Some reframe their ideas about faith. Others see God in post-traumatic stress itself.
“If I could turn back the hands of time, I’d not change anything,” said Pantlitz, who now focuses on his family and his work in counseling groups. “To go to Iraq, to get PTSD, and to use it, to make me a more ironically compassionate person, which opened doors for me to tell people who have been through trauma, difficulties, that God doesn’t waste anything.”
“Sometimes God purposely breaks the chaplain so he can make them a better chaplain,” he said. “In my case, I was wounded, and I use my wounds to be a healer to others. This has made me a better Christian.”
The drain on chaplains and other caregivers is sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” a term used in the civilian world to refer to anyone, from firefighters to newspaper readers, who grow desensitized to endless stories about conflict.
Some post-traumatic-stress programs are starting to specialize in caregivers. Operation Tohidu, a seven-day retreat program in Maryland for veterans coping with stress, will run its first version specifically for caregivers — many chaplains — early next year. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been the common term for the potentially crippling symptoms some people experience after traumatic incidents, though it’s becoming less frequent to use the word “disorder.”
Mary Neal Vieten, a Navy psychologist who runs the Tohidu program, said it is filling fast.
“Chaplains are the go-to person when someone has a problem,” she said. “They are the only ones perceived as offering real confidentiality, available 24-7. They are also non-combatants. In other words they can’t defend themselves under attack.
“They are the dumping ground for everyone else’s problems,” she said. “They can’t go anywhere without someone saying, ‘Hey Chaps, got a sec?’ It’s a boundary-less job in that sense.”
While their theological training may make plenty of theoretical room for the existence of suffering, it’s different when they are confronted by the brutalities of war head-on, Vieten said.
“What we tell them is: If you aren’t traumatized on some level, you’re not a functioning human being,” she said. Reminding pastors that trauma is a category of suffering — not a mental illness — helps them to recover, Vieten said.
Chaplains play different roles for soldiers.
Several chaplains described being characterized as “good luck charms,” with comrades wanting them to fly or drive with them into conflict, believing in a religious or even superstitious way that the chaplains would protect them from danger. Others say they feel more like a “sin-eater,” a folkloric magical figure who takes on others’ sins so they can rest after death or be free. Sin-eaters are sometimes seen as outcasts, sometimes as heroes.
“I can’t do the sin-eater thing day in and day out anymore,” said Williams, who now lives in Florida. “I’ve done the thing where you do death notification in the morning, someone telling me about their husband leaving them in the afternoon, and someone talking about being abused in the evening. Constant suffering becomes your reality. I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
Yet Williams said that dealing with his own post-traumatic stress helped liberate his religious faith.
“Now I’m living my faith more,” he said. “Before, I felt I had to stick with the party line. Now, I’m unaffiliated, but I believe in God and my soldiers” and other soldiers with whom he didn’t serve, he said.
Doug Carver, a major general who was the chief of chaplains for the Army from 2007 to 2011 — the Army is the branch with the most chaplains — said there is no hard data on whether chaplains are more or less likely to experience stress, but that from his experience, a long-term syndrome is rare.
However, he said, the Army launched a program called Combat Military Ministry, specifically to help chaplains and their assistants deal with trauma. He said he also sees a trend at Christian colleges, where they are creating crisis-counseling programs for chaplains.
“The chaplain is unique in dealing with guilt, unforgiveness, blame,” Carver said.