Post-traumatic Stress and the American Soldier

Q. I have a very close friend who is Jewish (Conservative). He is deeply religious and his faith is the foundation of his entire life; it provides the context for his close relationship with his family and motivates his work. The Torah is very important to him.

As part of his duty he served and played a key role in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and was on the ground there for several months. Since his return he has suffered from PTSD. He took the lives of innocent people by mistake, and he says he did other things during his work there which he won’t talk about, all for which he is sorry. He says he violated the Torah. He no longer believes he is a good person.

He has not been to synagogue since he returned. I know he does not believe he deserves to go and he is punishing himself. I have told him that God cannot be so unforgiving, and that it is not up to him to decide whether or not he should be forgiven, it is up to God. Everybody makes mistakes, surely that is to be expected. I’ve asked him to go to synagogue, even if his heart is not in it at first, in the hopes that it will open his heart back up to God.

But I am not Jewish; I do not have any religion. I need you to tell me what to tell him. I want his pain to ease and I want him to know he is still a good person, and he deserves to enjoy synagogue, even if he did violate the Torah. Please provide some wisdom for him. Thank you.

A. I think your friend is lucky to have you in his life.

For the benefit of our readers, PSTD is a psychological disorder affecting individuals who have experienced or witnessed profoundly traumatic events, such as torture, murder, rape, or wartime combat, characterized by recurrent flashbacks of the traumatic event, nightmares, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, forgetfulness, and social withdrawal.

It seems to me that you should have your friend visit a good psychologist, or a good pastoral therapist who is skilled in dealing with these issues. There is a variety of well-established relaxation techniques exist which is likely to be effective in reducing the autonomic arousal associated with the experience of anxiety. Many techniques have been utilized to help individuals elicit relaxation including yoga, meditation, progressive relaxation, hypnosis, and bio-feedback.

Whatever technique is used, the cultivation of a passive effortless attitude is essential. One does not make relaxation happen, but rather allows it to take place by creating the right conditions. Of primary importance is a sense of safety, security, and freedom from threat. Combined with therapy, I think he can eventually pull out of this. In addition there are support groups that may be able to help your friend. Needless to say, find a local rabbi you can relate to and have him spend time listening to your friend’s pain.

The therapist should have excellent empathic skills, and should allow your friend to vent his pain so that he does not implode in silence. I would make mention to your friend a special verse that I believe can give hope and perspective to what he is feeling. The passage is from the Book of Jeremiah and it reads:

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not; for, behold, I am bringing evil upon all flesh, says the LORD; but I will give you your soul as a prize of war in all places to which you may go

(Jeremiah 45:5 ).

There is something profound in this passage. When we are engaged in a conflict–especially a conflict such as a war, – we must be careful not to let our soul be tainted or diminished. If you are fighting for something that is dear to you, then be careful to guard your soul.

Implore your friend, and tell him that he must not allow the war to take one more casualty— himself. A skillful counselor will help him salvage his soul, lest he become the final victim of the war. Needless to say, this process is never easy. I wish him well.