A U.S. soldier prays during a ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 11, marking the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. (CNS photo/Mohammad Ismail, Reuters)

Counseling, faith in Christ help veterans overcome PTSD

ORLANDO | Every November, while families and friends honor the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, some returning soldiers may need special assistance readjusting to the world they left behind.

Unfortunately, many of America’s veterans suffer from mental health issues when they come home from combat. For these soldiers, the psychotherapy they receive isn’t enough to help them recover. That is why many veterans seek help with the aid of Catholic prayer to assist them through their darkest hours of PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
To understand how veterans can successfully treat the disorder with prayer and therapy, it is imperative to know what post-traumatic stress disorder is and how it operates.

In honoring Veterans Day 2019, the Florida Catholic spoke with trained counselors specialized in treating the disorder with various methods—including faith-based solutions—to spread awareness that help is always available, and that hope is always there. To help a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, the counselor must first understand the patients fragile state of mind.

Father Stephen Brandow of Alexandria, Louisiana has been a priest for 23 years and has served 31 years working in the Department of Veteran Affairs assisting Army veterans with mental health issues. When veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, their “brains get reorganized,” he said, “filled with frustration and anxiety and anger” when “coming back to the civilian world. It is a major adjustment.” Even though the “brain is hardwired to do certain things, the brain is very adaptable.”

Father Brandow believes healing starts with a conversation from friends and family who should intervene if the returning veteran acts strangely. “Forcing a person to talk, even if it makes an argument will save their life,” he said. “Combat vets should be made to feel valued. Their life is just as important as anyone else’s. Sometimes it takes a long time to come to terms with (trauma),” Father Brandow said.

Registered Family Therapy intern in Orlando Chris Venezia said, “They don’t have to see death … they could just hear about it—like a 911 operator.” And once they have lived through a stressful moment, “they could be going through their day and recalling it and become emotional about it” and “have a feeling they are back in that moment.”

Venezia disagrees with the notion that many veterans should live with the disorder because they believe they can cure it on their own terms. “When it comes to faith and PTSD, treatment is one of the biggest hurdles we have,” he said. It is wrong that “they should endure PTSD … and suffer unnecessarily.”

Venezia uses the Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories (RTM) Protocol to help veterans “disassociate or disconnect from the events of that trauma in a much more comfortable way than basing the full experience of recalling and reliving it.”

Veteran and licensed counselor John Cothron practices Accelerated Resolution Therapy that “is a rescripting of the event itself for a positive response,” he said. “It takes constant training of the brain in that manner when it comes to changing that (initial) reaction. It really works. It is very effective.”

Cothron never includes the “D” in the term for the possible distress it might give a patient. “I only say post-traumatic stress. I leave out the disorder. It can be relative to each individual.”

Treating veterans can sometimes be “hard because the adrenaline has been so pumped up, their body is almost going through a withdrawal because there is no need for it,” Cothron said of the biological reasons behind the mental condition.

Cothron believes veterans practicing mindfulness is a major step in the right direction. “Being aware of how you are feeling in any moment,” will help the veteran remember that a situation is not as detrimental as it may appear.

Sleep, according to Cothron who compares the job of the unconscious mind to defragging a computer, is a major factor when resolving trauma. “The unconscious part of your mind is actually sorting everything from the day (during sleep),” he said. “When somebody has a traumatic event, that sleep is disrupted, so they don’t get into that deep REM sleep. They are stuck with that emotional attachment. Over time they might not think about it but if something happens that is very similar, it automatically pops that memory up with an emotional component and the body has a physiological response. Some people might break down and cry. Some people might dive on the floor.”

Along with assisting patients in counseling sessions using various psychological techniques, Father Brandow, Cothron, and Venezia apply the power of prayer to navigate their sessions with patients to much success.
Helping veterans to know they have the power to change how they feel and how they perceive their experiences is at the core of Father Brandow’s faith-based meetings.

“The heart of Christianity is suffering,” he said. “That is the essence of the Christian experience, through us and with us. Hope is with God. Hope becomes flesh. Probably Jesus in the garden is the most significant (story) that I know,” he said, noting Christ’s moments of doubt and pain. “Suffering is not wasted. It is a gift back to the Lord. Give back to Jesus.”

Cothron brings his religious faith with him to every meeting, as well. “I underline my sessions with it,” he said. “I encourage them to have a prayer life and to meditate on certain Scriptures. The body and the brain respond to the hope that is there and is actually able to work on healing itself.” For veterans who think there is no way out, Cothron has much to add. “You must process the trauma and using God makes it that much quicker,” he said. “Post-traumatic stress is not a disorder that you have to live with for the rest of your life. Don’t desensitize yourself … that never works. All you do is retraumatize yourself.”

“Guilt and shame make them feel they cannot approach God,” Venezia said. “A person’s belief in faith changes the persons view of themselves. If there is just random violence, then there isn’t much hope.”

Nearly 3.5% of American adults are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in their lives, with women two times as likely to experience stress than their male counterparts. With an average 20 American veterans committing suicide each day (approx. 7,000 each year), professional help in the veteran community is needed. Soldiers who have seen frontline skirmishes, such as gunfire, explosions, and the deaths of fellow soldiers, may face a long and brutal road to mental recovery.

Additional assistance through organizations designed to help veterans with the disorder are located throughout central Florida. Venezia and Cothron both recommend 22Zero, an organization operated by former veterans and law enforcement officials that provides premier help for returning veterans.

“Its mission is to bring down the suicides to zero,” Venezia said. “We work really close with them.”

Father Brandow has created a group for veterans who exercise spirituality through Jesus and prayer. “We review things on all sides to help keep a spiritual diary. Becoming interested in mindfulness without judgment of the present and the past is the hardest part for PTSD people,” he said. “It really is a big challenge.” The best advice Father Brandow has for those helping veterans isn’t only a principle many therapists use, it is a value Christ practiced, as well: “Simple compassion.”