- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Tessa Poppe
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
My duffel bags were packed. I said farewell to my home. Then I drove outside my college town into farm country. It was a humid, June afternoon in Iowa when I stood on a gravel road next to a corn field and prayed. I prayed a lot as a kid, often walking to the park by my house to talk to God. I wasn’t much for the fire and brimstone character I heard about on Sundays. To me, God was a conversation. Endless and enduring. An entity that guided with purpose and understanding. I don’t remember the words I used, but the prayer was simple. I asked him to help me not make mistakes and get people killed. It probably seems normal for someone about to deploy again. However, it was ironic because I’d stopped talking to God three years prior in Iraq.
It seems like a natural war story even a mundane one: young, idealistic soldier, full of vigor and faith goes to war and loses that faith because war is hell … blah, blah, blah. But it’s not something we discuss often. It is easy to understand fear in war. It is not so easy to understand wounds of the soul. They are not clinical. Soul wounds are spiritual and moral transgressions. Yet we rarely discuss God in relation to moral injury, post-traumatic stress disorder , or survivor’s guilt. It’s controversial. It’s messy. It’s complex. Yet spirituality plays a vital role in how many of us make meaning, even meaning out of the futility of war and our role in it.
Some studies show trauma survivors with spiritual struggles often exhibit more severe PTSD symptoms. They may have worse mental health outcomes than those who kept their faith or didn’t have faith at all before their war experience. It follows that we should do more to understand spirituality as it relates to trauma. Wounds of the soul require intense and vulnerable conversations that open vets up to judgement. Judgement of their beliefs in the first place and secondly, of what they did or didn’t do in war.
After returning from Baghdad in 2008, I went back to church. I began where I left off. But I had fundamentally changed. I found myself wanting to stand behind the preacher’s pulpit and tell them it was all bullshit. Not that God didn’t exist, but that He wasn’t who they thought He was. I could barely stand that Sunday service, the spectacle of it all seemed trite and disconnected from the real world. The preacher spoke of current events as if God was indefatigably on our side and the devil was on the other. That our wars were between good and evil and American troops were heroes. I was no hero. I was certainly not righteous and the devil was in all of it.
I struggled greatly with fits of depression. I was on a never-ending loop, trying to find meaning to my war, all the while remembering the neat rows of blind-folded and zip-tied detainees stumbling off C-130s in the sweltering, Iraq heat. There must be something to learn here, I thought. There must be purpose. There had to be, otherwise there was nothing.
A year later, I still could not find solace in being a civilian. There was an underlying angst each time I went to class and an emptiness when I prayed. I was angry. I had no purpose. So when my unit asked for volunteers to go to Afghanistan, it seemed like a second chance to get things right.
After praying in that corn field and leaving Iowa, I found myself more superstitious than religious. I left with a second cross tattoo on my body and religiously wore a cross necklace. They weren’t declarations of faith. They marked a path for me to remember how to get back as I inwardly unraveled. We prayed as a platoon before each convoy and I prayed again in my head before going over wadis, in case they blew up under our feet. Maybe I was just scared, maybe part of me still believed, maybe my faith was held together only by the ink in my skin.
The struggle didn’t hurt because I was at odds with a religion. It hurt because I was at odds with my creator. Who are you? I asked God. Where are you?
American churches are missing from this conversation. Spiritual leaders are not talking about veterans and moral injury or their lost faith. Yet they are the exact community to offer a different lens on this issue and could offer vets a community to explore the complexity of their beliefs and experiences in war.
I still pray, but I’m more honest. Sometimes I cuss. I struggle with what I experienced and saw and know to be real and what I believe. It is a continual process of confessing, empathizing, and wrestling with oneself and one’s God.
Tessa Poppe served in the Army National Guard as a Military Police Officer for seven years, leaving as a Sergeant. She deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010. She graduated Georgetown University with a Master’s Degree in Security Studies, focusing on human security and stability operations. She is currently a program specialist in overseas safety and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are her own.
Photo credit: U.S. Army