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Hidden Wounds of a Warrior

The sun sets fast in the desert. An ominous darkness is moving in. The war-torn Sunni Triangle was no place to be after dark. They were trying to make for the relative safety of camp before night fall. Lookouts could be seen watching them all day along the cliffs. The echo of gunfire in the distance, kept the soldiers on high alert. Suddenly there is a bright flash and a deafening boom! Fire and twisted metal pointed to where the lead truck had been a moment ago. There is a flurry of activity - screaming from the wounded - orders being barked out. Maimed and broken bodies are strewn around the ground. Is this what the recruiter meant when he said we would just be Weekend Warriors?

As of the end of August, 2010, according to our government, combat troops have officially been pulled out of Iraq. There will be a lot more returning troops coming back from war. Some of them may be fellow LEOs. You may go on patrol with them. It may even be you.

Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) represent the longest running active military effort in U.S. history. Reservists and National Guard members made up over half of our active Armed Forces. Consider that over 1.5 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly half of them have had multiple deployments. How many are from your department?

The War on Terror has had spiritual and emotional impacts on our military men and women. Here is a short list describing some of the toll it has taken, and some of what they may be experiencing:

  • Confusion about God and questioning their Faith.
  • Changes in their view of the meaning of life.
  • Grief and loss issues, including grieving a loss of Faith.
  • A feeling of being permanently damaged.
  • Thoughts and feelings of guilt, ineffectiveness, shame, despair and hopelessness.
  • Confusion about core ethical beliefs.
  • Some feel they have committed an unpardonable sin by killing another human being (the Thou shalt not kill question).

LEOs often face life and death situations. After a critical incident we have learned to expect, and look for certain reactions. Chaplains receive training to work cops through such situations using techniques such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefings. Cops who are National Guard or Reservists who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have faced multiple critical incidents. By some reports, up to 75% of service members had been in situations where they could be seriously injured or killed, and well over 60% knew someone who was seriously injured or killed.

The wounds of war are not limited to those that are strictly physical. There are those of a mental nature such as PTSD; the nervous system such as traumatic brain injury; and other so-called hidden injuries. There are also spiritual wounds that go into a person's psyche. Anytime a LEO is involved in a critical incident, there is an expectation that they have been affected. The same considerations should be given to those returning from war. They should be encouraged to take care of themselves, just as if they had been involved in a shooting or other critical incident. Encourage them to exercise, such as riding a bike or jogging with a dog; get plenty of rest; and talk it out with a safe person.

A color code can be used to asses a person's state of mind. Condition white is totally relaxed. This might be sitting in your easy chair at home, relaxing and watching your favorite show, or a sporting event. Condition Yellow is high alert. When you are on patrol, you know there is danger out there. You are ready to jump into action and solve whatever problems may surface. Condition red is when everything hits the fan. Someone is shooting at you, or you're facing a very dangerous situation. Condition red means you are in a fight for your life.

We all need to be able to go into condition white. We need to feel safe, and to be able to relax, rest, and recover. Being in a constant state of condition yellow or red, will lead to exhaustion, and psychiatric break. Most vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are constantly in a state of condition yellow, of high alert, and many are stuck in condition red.

In previous wars, our returning troops would be put on a ship for up to thirty days as they returned from the battle field. They were given time to decompress - to share their stories with other veterans who had been there. In most cases now, a returning vet will be home in less than a week. A typical story I hear is they went to tell their girl friend or their buddy about some of the things they had seen. Their friend went white and said they couldn't handle listening to their story. After that they clam up, and won't talk about it at all. One of the best ways to get over a critical incident is to tell your story to a safe person that can handle hearing it. Talking it out will take away some of the power the incident has over you.

Chaplains generally see a lot of tragic death, and horrible calls. They are a safe person who has seen and experienced enough death and atrocities that they can handle hearing your stories without being damaged. The chaplain is also the best person to talk to about how your faith has changed. They are able to offer confidentiality, an understanding ear, and professionalism.

LEOs returning to patrol after being deployed need to know they are OK. They are part of a bigger family, and they need to share their story. Encourage them to talk when they are ready, and don't shut them down when they do talk. You may be the lifeline they need in order to continue their meaningful career in law enforcement.