UCC minister addresses mental health issues as military chaplain
Written by Emily Schappacher October 3, 2013
The Rev. Andrew Sholtes at the Kandahar, Afghanistan NATO Combat Hospital in 2011.
Many of the Rev. Andrew Sholtes' patients refer to themselves as monsters. Most of them have either contemplated or attempted suicide, and don't believe they are worthy of love or respect from their families and friends. They engage in destructive behavior that only compounds the self-loathing they feel every day, and isolate themselves from the rest of the world as a way to deal with the pain. These are just some of the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that Sholtes, a United Church of Christ military chaplain and pastoral counselor for the Directorate of Mental Health at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, works to help U.S. service men and women overcome.
"I found my calling," said Sholtes, who was a UCC pastor for seven years before becoming a military chaplain in 1994. "These invisible wounds are not just psychological, but moral and spiritual. I'm helping my patients to gently understand that they are not responsible for these things."
PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event, such as combat or war. The illness has taken center stage as countless service men and women return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan crippled by PTSD symptoms and an inability to readjust to civilian life. While events like the UCC's Mental Health Network's Mental Health Sunday on Oct. 20 help raise awareness about issues like PTSD, Sholtes says there is still a lot of work to do to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and effectively treat what he refers to as an epidemic.
"The stigma still lingers for some people, but those who have been exposed to the last two wars now know how real it is," said Sholtes. "We can't measure at this point how big the impact will be, but it is going to be a huge financial burden on our country to treat the close to 2 million people who were exposed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The [Veterans Administration] is backlogged eight to 10 months by people applying for help."
The rise in PTSD is a result of the changing nature of war, Sholtes said. One change is that, instead of one deployment, many Soldiers and Marines now face an average of three to five – one of Sholtes' patients has been deployed 11 times. Another change was the enemy's introduction of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which injure more than 81 percent of men and women in combat. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, U.S. troops are fighting an "asymmetrical war," a violent conflict between a formal military and an informal, less equipped, and undermanned, but resilient, opponent. Sholtes said many of his patients have also been affected by the culture of the enemy and how little they seem to value the lives of innocent civilians, including women and children.
"These have not been conventional shooting wars – we are fighting enemies who are planting bombs, and we don't always know who the enemy is," Sholtes said. "A story that comes back again and again is how our troops go out to fight the enemy who use children as shields. They throw innocent people in the line of fire to save themselves. This deeply violates the moral standards of our fighting men."
The effects of PTSD are far reaching. Sholtes points to strains on the healthcare system, veteran's assistance programs, and the economy, as many PTSD sufferers are unable to hold down civilian jobs. Domestic violence and suicides are also on the rise, affecting families who have already experienced the stress caused by their loved one's deployment. Sholtes sees about 20-25 patients a day during individual or group sessions, and is one member of a multi-disciplinary team of doctors and psychologists who also work to help these people return to a normal life. But addressing the moral, spiritual and ethical wounds – convincing his patients that they are, in fact, not the monsters they see themselves to be – is a vital part of the treatment process that Sholtes feels will be the key to long-term success.
"My strong conviction is that to treat PTSD sufferers successfully, we will need to address the associated moral injury, which is inherently spiritual," Sholtes said. "Failing to do that will equal failing to treat this epidemic successfully."