The young warrior, weary from battle and with his head hung low, sat on his horse. He was returning to his tribe. His shirt was covered in blood. It had been a hard fought, vicious, battle. There were many casualties on both sides. Some of his friends were among the slain. He had fought braves of the enemy tribe, and watched them die. This was the first time he had ever killed another human being. He and his companions had defended their families from the attacking marauders, and had driven them away. But he had mixed feelings. On one hand he felt proud for having the courage go into battle and do his duty, but on the other, he felt spent, ashamed and guilty for killing other men.
The Navajo warriors were welcomed back, but were not allowed back in to the camp. They would have to remain on the outskirts until they went through a cleansing ceremony. The members of their tribe would not call their names, or even look them in the eyes before the “Enemy Way” had been performed. They knew that war was difficult on them, and made it impossible for them to live in the ordinary, everyday world. The returning warriors needed to have their balance restored before they went to be with their families again. The tribe would practice their rituals to cleanse these returning war veterans of the effects of death and bring them some healing before being assimilated back into the tribe.
Most Indian tribes had traditions after a war, including telling their battle stories in words, songs and in other ways. Some used sand painting. Many used dance to rid them of the evil of battle. War veterans were held in high esteem, and most tribes believed they held special wisdom from having been part of battle.
The war in Iraq is drawing to a conclusion. Many of the returning veterans are “weekend warriors” as part of the National Guard or Reserve units. Many of these veterans are also law enforcement officers. They may have stories to tell, and certainly have had many experiences that they would never have chosen to go through. The native Indians knew the importance of ritual, storytelling, and giving time to their returning warriors. At the same time, their warriors understood the importance of letting the tribe help them heal physically, mentally, and spiritually. They embraced the rituals as a way of dealing with the horrors they had experienced.
Senator Bob Dole wrote the Foreword in a book called, “Courage After Fire.” He says in the Foreword, “Coming back from war is a longer journey than any plane flight home. It would be great if everything just snapped back together the way it had always been – and if what happened in Tikrit stayed in Tikrit, for instance - but the truth is, returning from war is much more complicated than that. Digesting what you saw and what you missed and relating to your old world can be tough, even with terrific support. It feels unfair, considering t personal sacrifice. But fair or unfair, returning home is rarely what you imagine it will be.”
When a LEO experiences an officer involved shooting; responds to a horrific scene; or experiences the worst that our society has to offer – just as our returning warriors – there are things that get on us that “we just can’t wash off”. It’s not an act of courage to shove our emotions down and not deal with what happened. Having “Choir Practice” at the bar is not the most effective way to deal with what you have gone through. Self medicating in these circumstances is never a good idea, whether you use alcohol, sugar, or other substances. It takes doing something to cleanse the effects of death. Telling your story to a safe person such as the Chaplain can be the start of that healing. Chaplains have received specialized training to help walk you through the healing process, and deal with the harsher parts of the job.
Part of the Navajo warrior tradition was the willingness to engage the enemy in battle. The qualities of a warrior included strength, honor, pride, devotion and wisdom. These same qualities and tradition can be found in our modern day warriors. Those who have sworn an oath to serve and protect have shown not only the willingness, but the courage to face whatever comes each day. But the Navajo warriors also knew they needed each other and they knew when to seek the support of the tribe.
The conclusion of Senator Dole’s forward in “Courage After Fire” is very poignant in pointing out true courage. I don’t think I could put it any better. It reads: “In battle, courage means sacrificing our own well-being for fellow soldiers and for our country. After battle, courage means concentrating on and being honest with ourselves, using all the tools we can gather to lead the best life we can, and, by example, giving something to those who will follow in our footsteps.”
A law enforcement officer will experience critical incidents. If you are in this career field long enough you will see death. You may find yourself in a position where you have to take a life, and will very likely know someone who does. It is part of the calling of being in law enforcement.
When you do experience a critical incident, be prepared. Don’t hesitate to embrace your own rituals. Seek strength from your spiritual side and get support from your own faith community. Talk to the Chaplain and get support. This will help build your resilience. Above all, know yourself, and know when you need to have the courage to seek help from a safe person, and then don’t put it off.
Chaplain Terry Morgan is an ordained minister with over 25 years of experience. He has spent over 12 years as a law enforcement chaplain. He was most recently the Senior Chaplain and Executive Director for the Placer County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, an agency with 63 paid and volunteer chaplains. He is a Master Chaplain Level member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, and is a member of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. He is Board Certified in Emergency Crisis Response through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. And he is a member in good standing, of the California Peer Support Association (CPSA).
Chaplain Morgan earned his Masters degree in Ministry in Public Safety, with an emphasis on Law Enforcement Chaplaincy from Trinity Biblical University and his Bachelors degree in Theology from Pacific Coast Bible College. He has taught Bible college courses, and teaches crisis counseling for chaplains. He is an expert in dealing with traumatic stress, and stress management. He has been frequently published in Officer.com magazine on a variety of topics related to law enforcement. He teaches various ministries how to help their own parishioners through critical incidents, crisis, and traumatic events, while exercising good stress management techniques and preventing compassion fatigue or burn out in their ministers.