Padre Tim Nelligan, Senior Chaplain from Edmonton, presides over the holy Mass at Airfield 21 in Wainwright, Alta. Chaplains are the sounding board for soldiers who are dealing with the demons from their service. Photo by Cpl. Éric Girard, 3e Escadre Bagotville

Chaplains help soldiers ease their pain

By 
  • May 24, 2015

Death, chaos, silence, despair… and faith? The post-traumatic stress disorder crisis in Canada’s military is being met with a small core of dedicated men and women who have always been there — the chaplains.

P2 Second Class Allan Kobayashi is part of a grim register of military mental health statistics. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nearly 10 years ago. He has been sent away for three months to treat his alcoholism. He meets weekly with a men’s group and has been in regular treatment with both psychiatrists and psychologists.

The whole experience is what 35-year-old Kobayashi calls “pretty freakin’ heavy.”

Before he began treatment, before he even understood that he was experiencing trauma, Kobayashi’s lifeline was the chaplains who were with him and his unit in Kosovo, with him again as he was fighting floods in Winnipeg and firestorms in Kelowna, and still with him when he was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The chaplains — some ordained, some not, all of them known as padres in military parlance — were Kobayashi’s sounding board, there “to share those demons or those feelings in confidence, being able to rid some of that toxicity that a lot of us soldiers have or have had and kept buried,” Kobayashi told The Catholic Register.

In the decade between 2004 and 2014, 160 of Canada’s soldiers committed suicide, 22 more than the 138 who died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A 2014 survey of military personnel by Statistics Canada found 17 per cent of military personnel self-reported symptoms of major mental health disorders or addiction in the previous 12 months. Eight per cent indicated symptoms of a major depressive episode and five per cent disclosed symptoms of PTSD or anxiety.  Another 2.5 per cent reported symptoms consistent with alcohol abuse and two per cent admitted alcohol dependence.

As a 19-year-old infantry soldier in Kosovo, Kobayashi saw his first mass grave and was shot at for the first time in his life. The idea he would find comfort, support and guidance from military representatives of organized religion came as a surprise. He never thought of himself as religious.

But that’s one of the contradictions. Anyone who sees Kobayashi at the beach is likely to conclude he is a committed Catholic.

“I have religious tattoos all over me,” he says on the phone from his home in Victoria, B.C. “I have Jesus Christ superimposed and the Garden of Eden on my shoulder. I have Him superimposed on my bicep. I have INRI on my left ribs and Mother Teresa on my back, with wings.”

One of the first padres Kobayashi talked with asked him about the tattoos and why he had never been seen at Mass or a Bible study group or any of the other religious activities organized for soldiers.

“I says, ‘Well, I don’t believe.’ He says, ‘Well, you don’t gotta believe.’ ”

When Kobayashi discovered that padres were ready and willing to listen without preconditions, without judgment, without a declaration of denominational allegiance, it was as though he had discovered a secret — a kind of pass-key that got him out of the machismo-driven military ethos of silence.

“You are pretty much programmed from day one to numb, to neglect, to get rid of those feelings,” he explained.

In Afghanistan in 2002 to 04, Kobayashi noticed he wasn’t the only one with the secret. A patrol that saw a couple of fatalities resulted in Kobayashi’s comrades going directly in search of the padre.

“When we got back to camp they (the soldiers) were so closed, so shut-down and just….  they were just… I would say the easiest way to describe it is closed,” Kobayashi recalled. “When we came back they were so dead set, so determined the first person they wanted to go see was the padre.”

In part, soldiers go to padres because they trust them, according to retired Lieutenant Colonel Chris Linford.

“Some soldiers might feel more comfortable dealing with somebody who is not in the chain of command,” Linford said.
Linford was himself diagnosed with PTSD in 2004, 10 years after surviving the harrowing experience of Canadian Forces caught in the middle of the Rwanda genocide. Today, he speaks across Canada about his experience of trauma within the military and runs a network of support for soldiers and veterans called Wounded Warriors.

Linford has always had his suspicions of organized religion, and never turned to padres to deal with his personal situation. But as a commanding officer he’s seen the ability of padres to do things for soldiers — both individually and collectively — that he couldn’t do as a commanding officer.

“I’ve had padres who have been quite effective in dealing with certain individuals,” he said. “I will also admit that on a few instances they’ve made it a lot worse, with I’m sure the best of intentions. Sometimes you can stir a pot when it didn’t need to be stirred.”

But on Christmas Day, 2009 the pot needed to be stirred at the NATO hospital in Kandahar where Linford was commanding officer, managing the people who saw the worst of what the war produced.

That day started off relaxed, low stress, even festive. Most of the casualties had been moved on to military hospitals in Europe and North America. Nurses and other personnel were dressed up in Christmas costumes. Linford’s fellow officers were back at their quarters catching up on sleep, calling home, connecting with family. Suddenly there were incoming casualties — American soldiers who had been returning to Kandahar from forward bases for a ramp ceremony.

An eight-wheeled, armoured Stryker vehicle had hit an IED. The worst injured was 35-year-old Army Staff Sergeant David H. Gutierrez, father of three young sons and due to be sent home in a couple of weeks.

“He had been a huge man — big, barrel-chested,” recalled Linford. “He was literally half of what he once was. He was missing the lower half of his body.”

They pulled him into the operating room and the medical staff poured blood into him for two hours. Finally the senior surgeon asked each of the doctors working on Gutierrez whether there was any point. One by one they said no.

As the officer in charge, Linford looked around and saw his unit faced with horror on Christmas Day.

“People’s spirits were literally sinking through the floor of the room. I was really triggered by all this as well. Just about everybody was weeping that this man was going to die,” said Linford. “And I really felt quite desperate as the leader of this unit, that my unit was just crashing.”

The one person who could do something in this situation turned out to be a Catholic padre on the edge of the circle.

“I hesitate to use the word miracle, but this guy came in the room… The most unlikely looking hero you would ever see in your life. He was a kind of funny looking dude with big ears and a big nose and coke-bottle-bottom glasses. He was a sight to behold.”

The padre put on his stole, brought out his chrism oil, and stood beside the dying man. With his hand on Gutierrez’ chest, the priest told the military medical personnel surrounding the operating table about the soldier, with whom he had spoken just two days before — about the man’s history, his family, his plans and dreams.

“Then this padre started to speak about the staff in the hospital and how everybody tried so hard that day,” Linford recalled. “From the orderly out there on the flight line offloading them from the helicopter to getting them in to all the high-priced help, like the surgeons and all that stuff. He just brought everybody into this story so magically.”

With the padre’s help, Gutierrez died surrounded by people who knew something about him and knew how they were connected with him.

“Everybody just sort of quietly left. Some people stayed a long time with him, stayed with this guy. Some people still were crying at his loss.”

Linford believes the padre, by connecting his soldiers to this Christmas Day casualty in a story, prevented a great deal of emotional trauma if not future cases of PTSD.

“I don’t like the word hero, but to me he is one,” Linford said.

That kind of first aid for souls defines the job, said Colonel Fr. Alain Guevremont, director of chaplain services in Canada’s military ordinariate. Guevremont is one of more than 30 priests among almost 90 padres serving with the Catholic military ordinariate — a kind of diocese for military personnel.

“People in crisis have existential questions. Part of it is spiritual and we’re there for that,” said Guevremont.

Guevremont has seen the issue of PTSD grow over the last 15 years.

“I’m not sure there’s more of it. It’s just that people are talking about it now,” he said.

The clinical diagnosis puts the front-line padre’s in a delicate position. Chaplains are spiritual guides, confidants, friends of soldiers — not psychiatrists. There has to be a clear line between the work of chaplains and the work of mental health professionals, said Guevremont.

“We don’t have the tools and you could do more damage if you start playing in a field you don’t know about,” he said.

But the military is now recognizing the tools chaplains do possess. Over the last year specialized, clinical chaplains have been incorporated into mental health teams at seven Operational Trauma Stress Support Centres strung across Canada.

These seven clinics, plus a more general mental health facility in Winnipeg, are the Canadian Forces main response to the rising tide of PTSD.

“In these clinics, the chaplains are there to work on psycho-spiritual care,” explained Padre Major Jean-Sebastien Morin, national practice leader for the Canadian Forces’ mental health chaplains.

“There’s a real appetite and interest within the mental health community in the Canadian Forces to integrate the mental health chaplains as truly a part of the mental health team as clinicians. I can see the benefit of having those resources. It really serves our people. I hear it from every level of the chain of command.”

But what the specialized mental health chaplains do is based on the work of ordinary chaplains attached to units throughout the military.

“The chaplain in the unit line is really the first line of intervention,” said Morin. “He is where the troops are. He is certainly like a crisis worker in some ways. He will be the first point of contact if he sees someone struggle. He will be the bridge between the member and the resources and the chain of command.”

This is more than just a case management flow chart for Morin. It’s precisely how chaplains are pastors to soldiers.

“He walks with them as a Christian,” he said. “Jesus was where the people were, whether it was pleasant or not. That’s the call of the chaplain, to follow the troops.”

“When I see one (a padre) I don’t kind of run away, because I’ve always had an awesome, positive, uplifting experience with them. I’ve never had a bad experience,” said Kobayashi. “I’ve dropped and dumped many psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists and therapists because I felt betrayed or lied to. I’ve never had that with a padre. I’ve never felt betrayed, lied to or even judged. It’s always been this accepting, open relationship.”

Kobayashi has two daughters, 13 and 11, and has been married 15 years. He grew up in a military family, born in Trenton, Ont., and raised all over the country by a military stepfather. He’s still not going to church and his understanding of God is mostly derived from his Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step experience. He refers to God as his “Higher Power.” As a paymaster, Kobayashi mostly rides a desk in a cubicle, just like his civilian counterparts in other large organizations.

Though he still struggles, Kobayashi knows he’s a success story — a soldier who has been through PTSD and is still married, still the everyday father to his children and not another victim of suicide.

“For so long there was that dark cloud, that stigma, that fear of exposing, of being vulnerable, of telling people I have PTSD and what that would look like to the chain of command,” he said.

It was padres who got Kobayashi to the point where he could face his demons, who encouraged him to find help. Now he’s the old soldier who sees young men struggling as he once did.

“When I do see people struggling or hurting and I believe they would benefit from it, absolutely I will point them to a padre.”

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