Published June 7, 2007
ELMIRA, Ore. (BP) — “What’s your problem? Just park the truck!”
Sgt. 1st Class Bruce Cutshall shouted at his wife and son as they looked for a parking space. When his son finally parked the pickup, Cutshall slammed the door and stalked across the parking lot.
“Within 15 or 20 steps, I knew what I’d done,” he recalls. “I knew they were sitting in the truck thinking, ‘They told us he’d be kookin’ out.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I was just in Iraq making life-and-death decisions. Now my family’s deadlocked over choosing a parking space.’”
Cutshall couldn’t believe he was already lashing out. During the last year in Iraq, all he’d wanted to do was come home to be with his wife LaDonna and their two sons, Jim and Jeremiah. As a National Guard medic he’d seen death and destruction from all angles. Now, his family had picked him up at Fort Lewis and he thought the nightmare was over.
Soldiers and sons’ faces
Cutshall’s fight to reintegrate into civilian life was just beginning. Two years later, the 45-year-old veteran is back to being a husband, father, firefighter, and wrestling coach. But he’s still coming to grips with the war’s effects on his daily life. The jumpiness and hyper-vigilance. The nightmares of injured and dying soldiers whom he can’t help – sometimes with the faces of his own sons. The constant irritability. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis.
“I used to think people who claimed PTSD were a bunch of sissies,” he says. “We’d be out on a fire and meet homeless guys living in the bushes who’d say, ‘I was a medic in Vietnam,’ and I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah – get over it!’ Now I think, ‘Maybe those guys were in ‘Nam and had their wires fried.’ I know it’s real.”
Cutshall says 90 percent of the vets in his unit have divorced since returning to the States. Nationally, suicide among veterans is twice the national average. And about one in five returns from the battlefield with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cutshall worries about this new generation of servicemen and women. A longtime Christian, he’s mentored many young men in his hometown of Elmira, Ore. Some of them he convinced to join the military. In Iraq, his tent became an unofficial chapel.
“I remember one big, strong, fit young killer coming in and asking, ‘Are you the God guy?’ Troubled over his eternal destiny, the soldier told Cutshall, “I’m in the lead rig tomorrow, and the guys in the lead rig always get killed.”
“He accepted Christ, and we baptized him in this big crate lined with duct tape. You had to do it fast because it leaked.”
From the battlefield
The soldier wasn’t killed, but now he and many like him are facing a new challenge on American soil – reintegration. They’ve learned how to be warriors; now they’re civilians again.
The good news is that American families and churches can help. They can play important roles in the lives of veterans coming off the battlefield, says Richard Meyers, chairman of the psychology department at Corban College in Salem, Ore. An Army National Guard chaplain for 30 years, Meyers has counseled many vets. He holds troops in high regard and reminds families that their loved ones will come back from war dramatically changed.
“When they come home, they can often be standoffish,” Meyers says. “Their minds and hearts are somewhere else. If you can’t identify directly with their experiences, they often won’t take the time to describe what they went through.”
The parents of vets often find their son or daughter has “grown up overnight,” and families must negotiate brand-new relationships. Sometimes vets are aggressive or they withdraw in social situations. They may not feel satisfied with a mundane job after experiencing life and death on the battlefield.
Meyers urges families to be patient with their loved ones. Be ready for them to share – but don’t push them to do so.
That’s key, Cutshall agrees. Soldiers are trained to protect – and sometimes that means protecting their families from the harsh realities of war. The memories seared into his psyche – seeing Iraqi children killed by bombs, cleaning burning flesh out of armored vehicles, watching soldiers die on patrol – these are things he doesn’t like to recount.
“And then a lot of guys won’t talk about it because they instantly lose emotional control,” Cutshall says. “It’s like opening Pandora’s box.”
So, families, pastors, and church members who ask how things were “over there” must be ready to listen. That takes time, says Rahnella Adsit, associate national director of staff and troop care for Campus Crusade Military Ministry and parent of a Corban College student. She and her husband Chris travel throughout the country training Christians how to support vets.
“In the churches, we have to stop being afraid,” Adsit says. “Most people are afraid to deal with each other’s pain. We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone.”
Campus Crusade Military Ministry has begun organizing conferences that want to help. In February, leaders of the 8,000-member Times Square Church in New York City went through training on PTSD and reintegration.
“America’s churches have been asleep on this,” Adsit says. “Most of the military forces are cutting back chaplains, and all the chaplains are overworked, so we’re starting to partner with churches.”
Adsit notes that vets can find it difficult to reenter church life after returning from war. They feel different and don’t always know how to bridge the gap, so she encourages churches to start support groups and Bible studies for vets, by vets. Now is the time for older veterans to reach out in ways that no one else can.
“Unless you’ve been in combat, you don’t know what it’s like,” said one Vietnam War vet and Corban alumnus. “It’s like going to Mars and coming back.”
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