I WISH I’D KNOWN then what I know now.
How often have you thought that following an epiphany moment? That came for me Wednesday evening during a community meeting and film screening at the Faribault American Legion Post 43 on post traumatic stress disorder and the related topic of suicide.
I walked away from the gathering with a new perspective and regrets that I hadn’t thoroughly understood the mental anguish suffered by my Korean War veteran father. He fought on the front line as an infantryman—kill or be killed. As a result, he dealt with life-long issues that greatly affected his life and thus his family, too. He died 14 years ago on April 3.
Now, just days before the anniversary of his death, I gained insight beyond his PTSD diagnosis. I learned of the term “moral injury.” In a separate clip shown before airing of the feature film “Almost Sunrise,” a soldier explained how the realities of war can inflict wounds upon the soul. As I listened, the concept made total sense to me. Here was my dad, armed with a rifle and other weapons, forced to shoot the enemy or die. To take the life of another human countered everything he held to be morally right. I can only imagine how that tore him apart. It would anyone.
I recall his few stories of being so near the enemy that he could see the whites of their eyes. “Shoot or be shot,” he told me. I observed, too, the lingering pain he felt in watching his buddy Ray blown apart the day before the Nebraska solider was to leave Korea. I remember Dad’s stories also of Korean children begging for food across a barbed wire fence.
Dad was wounded in Korea, struck by shrapnel on Heartbreak Ridge. He earned a Purple Heart, awarded some 50 years after he left the battlefield. While his physical injuries healed, the wounds to his heart, to his soul, remained. He suffered from life-long moral injury, as I see it now.
I am grateful to the local Legion and Faribault Elks Lodge, specifically to Kirk Mansfield, a strong local advocate for veterans and head of Operation 23 to Zero in southern Minnesota, for organizing Wednesday’s community event. Operation 23 strives to help veterans and to create awareness of PTSD, suicide and more.
Showing of “Almost Sunrise,” a film that followed two Iraqi War veterans on a 2,700 trek from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, also gave me insights into the personal demons soldiers face upon returning home from the battlefield. It is a touching film that left me crying. The Wisconsin soldiers, as they walked across the country and in follow-up therapy, found personal and relationship healing. They found the strength within to forgive themselves. Only they—not their families—could lead them to that point of healing.
While Wednesday’s event focused on veterans, the information shared can apply to anyone who has suffered from PTSD, whether from domestic abuse or other trauma, Mansfield noted.
In a separate clip from the film, a speaker offered these tips for helping individuals dealing with mental health challenges:
- Show empathy by listening.
- Remind the individual that he/she has a purpose in life.
- Offer to be a mentor.
- Reiterate how important they are to you. Tell them they matter.
That’s great advice.
Mansfield challenged those in attendance to take what they’d just learned and help others. So I am, with this story. I have the ability to use the written word to create awareness. When we are educated and aware, then we can begin to help our family members, our friends, our co-workers, our acquaintances via listening, supporting, encouraging and reminding them just how much they mean to us. That is powerful.
FYI: To read a story I wrote about my dad, “Faith & Hope in a Land of Heartbreak,” published in the book, God Answers Prayers, Military Edition (page 12), click here.
© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling