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Wounded healers

Wounded healers

As part of its Memorial Day coverage, the Washington Post profiles military chaplains whose wartime experience has shaken – and changed – their faith.

“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 [former pastor, Matthew] Williams, who now travels across the country, performing music and visiting other suffering veterans in what he sees as a new kind of ministry.

Scarred by the horrors of war – physical, mental, and emotional – the chaplains carry their spiritual wounds even as they minister to those around them. Episcopal priest John Weatherly, who served in Bosnia and Iraq, told the Post,

“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.”

The unique stresses that chaplains carry are beginning to be recognized and addressed by programs for returning veterans and those with PTSD, including one in Maryland called Operation Tohidu.

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.”

The chaplains interviewed for the article made no secret of their woundedness – but true to their calling, they searched for the hope within the wounds.

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.

Read more of the military chaplains’ story here.

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