Lesson 3: The experience of trauma

Monday, June 1, 2015


To better understand the experience of trauma and its impact on the lives of soldiers, veterans, and all who are violated by war.

Download Returning Veterans curriculum pdf.


1 Samuel 15:3, 33 (NRSV) 

Samuel's instructions to Saul

"Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."

(Just as Saul and Samuel concluded their worship together…)

"Then Samuel said, 'Bring Agag, king of the Amalekites, here to me.' And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, 'Surely this is the bitterness of death.' But Samuel said, 'As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.' And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."

1 Samuel 18:10-11 (NRSV)

"The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, 'I will pin David to the wall.' But David eluded him twice."

1 Samuel 17:55-58 (NRSV)

"When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, 'Abner, whose son is this young man?' Abner said, 'As your soul lives, O King, I do not know.' The king said, 'Inquire whose son the stripling is.' On David's return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. Saul said to him, 'Whose son are you, young man?' And David answered, 'I am the son of your servant, Jesse, the Bethlehemite.'" 


The biblical record is filled with stories of trauma. Open the pages of the Bible and you readily come upon scenes of violence that will chill your soul. Captive kings are hacked to death (1 Samuel 15), Levites kill 3,000 of their brothers, neighbors and friends (Exodus 32:27-28), Jael crushes Sisera's head with a worker's hammer and tent peg (Judges 4:17-21), and King Herod's birthday celebration includes the entrance of John the Baptist's head on a platter (Matthew 14:1-12) to reference just a few stories.  

It would not be wise, from across the vast cultural and time chasm that separates us from the Old Testament period, to impose present-day Western psychological diagnoses on biblical characters. Yet we can't help but wonder if King Saul's mercurial moods weren't somehow connected to his bloody history as a warrior. And while the young shepherd boy's (David's) slaying of Goliath is often recounted as a pleasant children's story, our 21st-century minds recoil at the imagery of David severing Goliath's head and carrying it around with him. Surely, this along with David's long guerrilla war with Saul, had some impact on David's psyche and view of the world after he became king.

We do know that people in our day, especially combat veterans, are profoundly affected by the violence they witness and commit. Suicides among U.S. veterans now total 22 a day.1 Combat veterans now account for more than 20 percent of domestic violence cases nationwide.2 This is not because today's soldiers and veterans are weak. These responses to trauma, while troubling, are not unexpected. It is unrealistic for a society to repeatedly send young soldiers into settings of brutality and violence, and expect them to emerge as whole, well-adjusted
human beings. 

A traumatic experience3 happens when people experience serious injury or threat of imminent death for themselves or others. The body responds by releasing chemicals and hormones that can be overwhelming, sometimes causing a freeze response that traps energy in the body. Unless this energy is released in a positive way, it can often lead to harmful actions toward oneself or aggressive and violent actions toward others. 

Exposure to violence in a combat setting is high, and repeated exposure can put a person at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Events, or certain sights, sounds or smells cause the veteran to re-experience a previous trauma. These veterans are not "remembering the trauma;" rather, their bodies instinctively respond as if the trauma were happening again. Unless healed and transformed, this trauma can haunt veterans for years, causing intrusive thoughts, numbness and isolation, depression, addictions, excessive vigilance, high-risk behaviors, and a loss of meaning or spiritual wholeness. This often affects a veteran's close relationships, and can cause family members to experience secondary trauma.

Other psychiatric issues can accompany PTSD. These include substance use disorders, depression, and other anxiety problems. About 75 percent of people with PTSD have at least one other psychiatric diagnosis.

Another type of trauma or stress often experienced by combat veterans is frequently described as soul wounding, moral injury, or moral pain. Therapist Carolyn Holderread Heggen recounts the story of a Vietnam veteran who told her, "If you want to know what it feels like to be me, read these verses," pointing to Psalm 38.4  

"There is no health in my body, my guilt has overwhelmed me, my wounds fester, I am bowed down and look very low. All day long I go about mourning. My heart pounds. My friends and neighbors stay away from me. My strength fails me. The light has gone out of my eyes. I am troubled by my sin." (Psalm 38:5-11)

Given what we know about David as a guerrilla fighter or the capricious way that King David took Bathsheba and dispensed of her husband, Uriah, it is not surprising that these words were written by him. Nor is it surprising that a Vietnam War veteran, centuries later, could identify with these sentiments from an ancient soldier poet. 

When soldiers participate in or witness actions that violate their own inner sense of right and wrong, this may cause moral pain. Soldiers may begin to question their identity as a "good person" or their implicit faith in the righteous cause of their country. Since much of what happens in warfare would be viewed as serious crimes in civilian life, some soldiers find that their entire moral framework and worldview is shattered, causing them to live in a world of ambiguity. One Iraq War veteran remarked, "I don't understand why I can't feel any empathy for the many dead Iraqis that I saw. What has happened to my ability to feel compassion?"5 Unless these soldiers can find new meaning, hope or acceptance, they may be crushed by guilt and shame, or simply feel lost without a moral compass.  

The path to trauma and moral pain often begins in basic training. Vietnam War veteran Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.) writes that "there is within most men an intense
resistance to killing … a resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it."6 After-combat interviews in World War II revealed that between 80–85 percent of U.S. soldiers did not fire their weapons at the enemy.7 This innate resistance to killing was directly addressed by the time of the Vietnam War, as the military introduced "reflexive fire" training during boot camp.  

As noted by Captain Pete Kilner, this new training greatly increased a soldier's lethality, by bypassing the soldier's own moral autonomy. Soldiers were taught to fire automatically in response to certain stimuli. "The problem," notes Kilner, "is that soldiers who kill reflexively in combat will likely one day reconsider their actions reflectively. If they are unable to justify to themselves the fact that they killed another human being, they will likely … suffer enormous guilt."8

Father William P. Mahedy, who served as a chaplain in the Vietnam War, describes this introduction into the world of war and violence as a conversion experience. "Snatched from the commonplace of life, the combat soldier is 'born again' into a different plane of existence from which there is no return … violence on the magnitude of war lies in the same plane as the questions of the beginning and the end of the universe, of God, and of meaning."9 

The profound conditioning and reshaping of identity that many soldiers experience in war, if left unaddressed, is a recipe for deep spiritual struggle. Perhaps King David began to realize this near the end of his reign. "But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.'" 

Unhealed trauma can lead to harmful behaviors toward oneself (acting-in),10  such as addictions, self-mutilation, overwork, overeating or failure to eat, risky sexual behaviors, and suicide. Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, headaches, and digestive issues are common.  

In addition, unhealed trauma can lead to harmful behavior toward others (acting-out),11 such as domestic violence and abuse, criminal activity, aggression, intolerance, and lack of empathy. According to the Veterans Administration, 25 percent of female soldiers report experiencing sexual trauma perpetrated by their fellow soldiers, and 1 percent of male soldiers report experiencing sexual trauma.12

Not all soldiers return from war deeply conflicted or traumatized. Yet for those who do, understanding the trauma experience is often one of the first steps on the journey
toward healing. Counseling resources and therapy are often necessary and helpful in "unlearning" wartime reflexes and behaviors. But at the root of much that happens in war, both for the soldiers and for the society that sends them to battle, are spiritual questions of moral responsibility, guilt, restitution, and ultimate meaning. Perhaps it is the congregations who are ready to struggle with these questions that can be most helpful to veterans.


1. View "The Trauma of War and Our Collective Responsibility" (PowerPoint).What do you think about the idea that war and its trauma are everyone's responsibility to address? 

2. How does an understanding of the trauma experience shape how you view the experiences of soldiers, or view difficulties experienced by many veterans?

3. What are some of the spiritual questions associated with our nation's current wars? How might your
congregation struggle with them?

4. How do you think the people of Jesus' day responded to the violence in which they participated? The soldiers who arrested and crucified Jesus? The soldiers who participated in the slaughter of the innocents? Is PTSD and moral injury only a modern phenomenon? Explain.


1 Suicide Data Report 2012, Department of Veterans Affairs. See http://www.va.gov/opa/docs/suicide-data-report-2012-final.pdf.

2 High risk of military domestic violence on the home front, Stacey Bannerman, SF Gate, April 7, 2014.

3 Much of the information about the trauma experience and its consequences is drawn from Eastern Mennonite University's STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) training program. For more information about STAR, see http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/. For STAR resources, see http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/toolkit/. 

4 Naming the Pain: A Lenten reflection on transforming the wounds of war, Carolyn Holderread Heggen, AMBS Chapel, February 28, 2012.

5 Interview with Titus Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. (name withheld).

6 On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning How to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, p. 4.

7 Grossman, p. 24.

8 "Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War," by Captain Pete Kilner. Paper presented to The Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics, Washington, D.C., January 27, 28, 2000, Updates as of 2/28/00.

9 A Theology and Methodology of Treating PTSD Patients, William P. Mahedy, 1996.

10 See STAR resources: http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/toolkit/Cycles_of_Violence-Full.pdf.

11 See STAR resources: http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/toolkit/Cycles_of_Violence-Full.pdf.

12 http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst_general_factsheet.pdf 









Lesson 3: Teacher's Noteshttps://www.pjsn.org/resources/militarism/returning-veterans/lesson-3/LessonThreeTeacher'sNotesLesson 3: Teacher's Notes
Lesson 3: Additonal Resourceshttps://www.pjsn.org/resources/militarism/returning-veterans/lesson-3/LessonThreeAdditonalResourcesLesson 3: Additonal Resources



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