How can the church help families struggling with PTSD?
Special for the Illinois Baptist by Kayla Rinker
Sterling, Ill. | The young soldier sat in the chair across from Army Chaplain Aaron Jackson and described the grisly scene that reoccurred in the private’s nightmares.
But Jackson was only half listening. Instead, his own anxiety that he had spent years suppressing flooded his mind, and images of violence and death caused his hands to become clammy and his heart to race.
“Until that point I had always felt stronger than it,” said Jackson. “No way was it going to overtake me. In the military we are taught to improvise, adapt and overcome. You don’t want to be the one who’s hurting.”
The more he counseled others, the more Jackson’s post-traumatic stress disorder came to the surface.
PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or seeing a terrifying event. It’s closely connected to military service; the National Center for PTSD reports 11-20% of veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD, as do 12% of veterans of the Gulf War.
But it’s not only war-related. The Center says 7-8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point, about 5.2 million adults in a given year.
Churches and pastors can play a vital role in the healing process, said Kip Troeger, a National Guard chaplain based in Springfield and a member of Living Faith Baptist, Sherman.
Troeger said the church holds a unique position to reach out to all people and their families who are battling PTSD.
“If you are dealing with something that has put a bruise on your soul or is surrounded by a tremendous amount of shame, or maybe you were even put in a situation that goes contrary to your moral conscience, what better place than at the cross of Jesus Christ to find healing?” he said. “That’s the answer that the secular world can’t provide.”
‘The God of all comfort’
In the 1990s and early 2000s, before God called him into the ministry as a pastor and a chaplain, Aaron Jackson served as an Air Force cop for the security forces in Iraq.
“I was an assistant flight sergeant on the midnight shift for combat controls,” he said. “It was a busy time and that was a busy part of the war.”
To this day, Jackson prefers not to talk about the details.
But it was during his chaplaincy, just three years from full military retirement, when Jackson knew he had to quit. He was asked to identify the remains of one of the men in his unit.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Jackson said. “I had to get away from it.”
That was in 2008. Now seven years later, Jackson is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Sterling. Though his PTSD hasn’t gone away, Jackson said the Lord has brought comfort and blessings in the middle of his afflictions, just like the Apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (ESV).
“I’ve clung to this verse and it’s helped me realize a purpose in the post-traumatic stress disorder and a purpose in my going through combat,” he said.
Jackson can shine a light in the deep darkness that most have never walked through. Whether a person has experienced a war zone, sexual abuse, natural disasters, serious accidents or another type of traumatic event, Jackson knows what it means to live with PTSD. But he also knows where hope is found.
And though Jackson still battles his symptoms of anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, memory loss, anger, social issues, and physical struggles, they don’t overwhelm him like they once did.
In fact, Jackson recently visited a local Veterans Affairs (VA) office and underwent a series of tests. His VA therapist said his symptoms have greatly improved in the last year.
“He attributed that to my being around people of the same faith that I have,” Jackson said. “I certainly know that’s true. My church family and support system throughout Sinnissippi Baptist Association is an awesome blessing. I also know Jesus Christ is providing his healing power and comfort. Oh and of course Archer; he is a tangible of God’s grace.”
Pastor Aaron Jackson’s dog, Archer, has helped him overcome symptoms of PTSD and also is the official greeter at his church, Emmanuel Baptist in Sterling. Photo courtesy of Aaron Jackson
Archer is a service dog that Jackson acquired through an organization associated with Disabled Veterans. He said Archer has helped him with anxiety, parts of his depression, and even his nightmares.
“He sleeps by my bed and when he sees me start to struggle in my sleep, he wakes me up,” Jackson said. “He’s also the official greeter at our church. Everyone loves Archer.”
His dog also encourages Jackson to overcome social reservations. When dog-lovers see Archer with Jackson, they can’t help but approach the pair.
“Most people think I’m training him. I explain that he’s my service dog, but my scars are unseen,” Jackson said. “With Archer I am able to celebrate and rejoice through these struggles, just like Paul and the thorn in his side. I would love God to just release me of PTSD, but the truth is that might not happen. You have to learn to live with it and live through it. You don’t have to stay down with it and you don’t have to accept the hurt it brings.”
Once Jackson started receiving the holistic help he needed to deal with his PTSD, he was finally able to live with it and allow God to work in a mighty way.
Caring for families
Chaplain Troeger said those who are most successful at working through PTSD take advantage of every resource available to them.
“And above that, those with the best results are willing to address the spiritual side of the issue,” Troeger said. “PTSD is the mind’s normal response to an abnormal experience. In my perspective, the guys who finally pray to God and say, ‘I can’t do this. You are going to have to take it from me,’ are the ones who come through it the best.”
Another way the church can help is to encourage connection through Sunday school classes and small groups. Duane Smith, pastor at First Baptist Church, Mascoutah, and a former member of the U.S. Air Force, said PTSD often causes people to withdraw and, in turn, compound PTSD with alcohol abuse, phobias, obsessive-compulsive issues and eating disorders.
“The church body and pastors must be encouraging and not let anyone slip through the cracks,” he said. “Pastors think they’re not experts on PTSD, but they don’t have to be. They are equipped to handle a wide range of hurts. We can help folks if we truly believe that we worship a God who knows all things.”
Military veterans may be most susceptible to PTSD, but their families often suffer too. When mom or dad comes home and things aren’t the same, spouses and children can bear the brunt of the “new normal.” Troeger said another way churches can be proactive, especially when it comes to ministering to service members and their families, is by participating in the Illinois National Guard Joint Force Partners in Care.
Through the partnership, member churches agree to provide the Illinois National Guard a list of services, ministries and support, and the Guard provides training and resources to churches on how to assist members and their families in times of crisis, stress and need.
“I can tell you that our church and many churches around this area are a tremendous support, whether it’s through a formal thing like Partners in Care or just a willingness to help,” Troeger said.
“PTSD awareness is a great thing. One of the biggest hurdles is de-stigmatizing mental health issues. Dealing with PTSD does not mean you’re somehow broken or have a weak mind. Again, it’s the mind’s normal response to an abnormal experience. That’s it.”
For more information about Partners in Care or other ways your church can help military families, send an email to Kip Troeger at illinoisbaptist@IBSA.org.
Read the June 8 issue of the Illinois Baptist newspaper at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.