Welcome home! You’ve been away at war for some time now. Your tour of duty has ended. Now all you want is a return to normalcy. You’re feeling a need to rest from being alert 24/7. And your body wants to let go of the roller-coaster ride your emotions have been on since the day you knew that you would enter the battlefield.
But there’s a problem. Your mind won’t let you rest. It plays through everything you have just lived through. The worst part is it’s as if you are right back in the thick of battle every emotion, sound, and smell.
You’re home where you are supposed to be safe. You know that the threat isn’t real this time, yet the memories of past battles haunt you when you want nothing to do with them.
Welcome to the backlash of war. The side that affects everyone differently. It’s due to a combination of searing adrenalin and the physical and emotional toll that occurs during the time of battle. These memories are now branded in your mind. They’ve become a scar on your soul that you don’t want to keep, but you don’t know how to get rid of them. You want life to get back to the way it was before you went to war.
I know where you are. I joined the U.S. Navy’s Special Forces in 1981 and participated in 25 missions. I have walked this road and continue to do so.
Choosing to serve
Let’s go back to the beginning, when you chose to join the Armed Forces. Whether you joined because you were drafted, decided it was your duty, or felt the need to serve, you still chose to step into harm’s way and stand in the gap. You chose to act.
Now, I know that those who were drafted weren’t given much of a choice, but there were still choices to be made. You could have rebelled or run away. So whatever led to your being in the military, you chose to serve.
You began with basic training, which probably felt like an insult to your ego. There you had to change your focus from yourself to that of the team. This change in your thinking was new, but necessary for your work in the military. Then you were given additional training for your specialty before being sent to your command unit, ready for whatever the military threw your way.
The day eventually came when your unit received orders: You were going into combat. An anticipation of both fear and excitement gripped you. After your training you said, “I’m ready. This is what I prepared for.” You felt confident about yourself and the team.
Your first battle came upon you like a lead ball in the pit of your gut. Your heart kept questioning why you were there. Your senses were on edge, searching everything around you for anything that would give you a heads up. When a bullet whizzed by and someone screamed, “Cover!” you instinctively dove behind a tree or a wall.
You were scared out of your wits. You hoped and fervently prayed that you wouldn’t let your teammates down or get killed. That’s when your training kicked in high gear and suddenly you became a spectator in your own body. You chose to do whatever you needed to do to get home; you willfully decided to kill.
Meanwhile, your mind took in all that was going on around you. The carnage was all too real. And then, in what seemed like a very short time, it was over. You had survived your first battle, and a new flood of emotions hit you. The crash of adrenalin made you feel sick and weak.
Already the next assignment had been decided and that’s when a new reality hit you like a brick wall: You would have to do this many more times before you could go home. Your body and mind screamed, “I need to decompress what just happened and rest.” But instead, you had to stuff your emotions and feelings and just think, “I will just have to deal with them later.”
This roller-coaster of emotions and feelings continued throughout your tour of combat duty. Each assignment built on the next. More emotions and feelings were stuffed into an imaginary trunk. Your attitude changed. You become hard lined about whom to share with and what you share; after all, they could be dead tomorrow.
The loss of friends was the worst. And with each loss, you shut down even more. Soon you were simply enduring the time.
Stepping back into your old role
Then the orders came. Your unit was standing down and heading home.
And then you are actually there, trying to get everything back to normal. Trying to show love to your wife and children; to feel their love in return. But even the simplest task often becomes a major project. Why?
Be aware of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s very real. You’ve been through the wringer and have possibly been on multiple tours of duty. Have you dealt with the emotional baggage that is tearing you apart?
Perhaps your friends and loved ones have said, “Just live life as you did before you left.” This is completely unrealistic. You can’t come home, bury half of yourself, and think you can live that way.
Support groups may be of some assistance. Retelling the events of war may help you analyze what happened and bring clarity to why the events occurred the way they did. But the retelling can’t bring about cleansing; only Christ can do that.
Life won’t get back to normal overnight. Don’t try to step into your old role too fast. Although you’ve returned as the leader of your home, you are not the same husband and dad your family knew. You may even find yourself trying to take control of the situation like a squad leader barking orders.
Are you charging at life’s circumstances as if you are taking an enemy stronghold? Your home isn’t a battlefield where physical life could end if you get it wrong.
Your wife and children are doing their best to understand why you are taking such a hard-line stance. So look at them with understanding. Listen to what they have to say. They are your familynot a squad of soldiers. Take the warrior off high alert and re-engage as the husband and dad your family needs.
To do this you’ll need to begin to unpack your trunk of stuffed emotions. They are working their way out onto your wife and children. While you were gone, your family found ways to cope without you. Now they want you back leading the home, but question if this is possible. That’s because you are emotionally “going off the deep end” at every little thing.
It might be because of the guilt you feel about living through your tour of duty when friends died. Or maybe you weren’t home during some family crisis. Regardless of why you are going off the deep end, you may not be ready to lead your home at this time. But you can’t keep throwing emotional grenades into your family bunker. If you don’t stop doing this, you will all too soon become an enemy to your own family.
I understand what you are going through. Remember, I’ve been there myself. But I promise, there is hope. You can heal from the trauma of war.
Here are four steps that will not only help your health and well-being, but also that of your family:
1. Deal with the misconception that “I can reclaim my life as it was before I entered the Armed Forces and build from there.”
Unfortunately, the truth is you can’t undo what has occurred.
You have been through a forge, reshaped and hardened for the task of defending this nation’s interest. You are not the same man or woman you were before you joined the military, and you never will be that same person again. It’s better to destroy a lie than to keep hearing and believing it.
But where are you going in this journey to healing? Let me share an illustration.
Iron ore, when placed in a furnace, is melted into steel bars. The bars are reshaped and hardened for the task ahead by a master toolmaker or blacksmith. Although the steel can never become ore again, it will always be steel. And steel can be reshaped for a new task. For example, a K-bar knife can become a surgeon’s scalpel.
Right now you are like a piece of steel that needs to be reshaped and repurposed for the task ahead.
2. Allow Jesus Christ to be the mastersmith of your life and the commander of your soul. So often we don’t invite Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18) into the circumstances and predicaments that place a burden on us and stain our souls with guilt and shame. We‘re afraid to have Him open this part of our lives, because it’s such a mess. Or, we think, “How can Christ bring healing to this area of my life when I’ve destroyed so many others?”
Redefine who you think God is. Joshua 5:14 states, “ … I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come … ”
And Revelations 19:11-13 says, “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.”
Christ is no stranger to war or how it affects you. The only way to wholeness is through God’s forgiveness through Jesus (Romans 6:23). Deciding to submit to the one who made you will be the Power-making difference. If you are ready, submit to Jesus Christ. By doing this, God can start the process of reforming His steel.
Are you ready to submit to the mastersmith? To allow Him to reform His steel and set a new task for you? This isn’t some cookie-cutter experience; everyone’s journey will be different. But Christ always makes a new creation.
Set aside time to:
- Ask Jesus, the Creator of life, for forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Invite Him to cleanse you of the attitudes of hate, fear, and any other emotions that occurred. Christ is the only one who wages war in sinless righteousness.
- Ask for His help to cleanse and purify any guilt you feel. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29: 11).
3. Define the new normal. The desire for normalcy isn’t wrong. You’ll just need to define the new normal, and have to face the forge to find it. I know the thought that just went through your mind, “Will I have to face the pain of these scars again? Quite frankly, that took a lot of effort the first time around.”
The only answer I can give is, “Yes.” If you want rest and peace for yourself and your family, you will have to face the pain once again. But there will be a difference: With Jesus Christ as the Commander of your soul, you won’t be facing this forge alone.
Yes, you have nicks, scraps, damaged edges, and a blunted point. You may even be a little bent out of shape, trying to avoid unpleasant facts about yourself instead of facing them. But now when you recognize a weakness, you can ask Jesus to help you change.
4. Address unresolved emotions from your tour. It’s time to start dealing with all the feelings you placed in your “trunk” during your tour of duty and then left sitting there, sealed up and untouched.
The Lord said in Numbers 31:19, ”And as for you, remain outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and seventh day.”
These days we don’t tell our soldiers to stay away from their families; we send them home, baggage and all. You may need to spend concentrated time “outside the camp” with Christ. Allow Him the freedom to reach into your life to cleanse and bring healing. Give Him unrestricted access to everything in your trunk in order to purify whatever He finds in there.
- Pray for His help to leave the baggage at His feet. It’s not His if you keep picking it back up.
- Say to Christ that He has full rights to reach into your life. Surrender entirely to His leadership.
- Spend extended time in God’s Word. Meditate on the truth of His Word.
Continuing the journey
Getting real with Christ, about the feelings and emotions of war, won’t be easy. But every time you do this, He will rain peace and wholeness back over the war-torn ground of your heart and emotions.
Also, help your wife understand how she can best pray for you. No, she doesn’t need a blow-by-blow description of what you have lived through, but she does need to know how you are being affected and how to pray. She is in the same bunker as you. Fight for your home and family together.
And band together with other brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Not to relive wartime events, but to encourage each other to get real before Christ. Pray for one another. Pick each other up when you fall.
The battles you fought in war don’t have to control your future. Take Christ by the hand and allow Him to reshape the course of your life. By doing this you will find the peace that only comes from the Prince of Peace. He will walk this journey with you … every step of the way.
John Treadway served with the military special forces from 1980 - 1985. He has worked at FamilyLife in Little Rock, Ark., since 1993.
Copyright © 2013 by John Treadway. All rights reserved. Used with permission.