As the Army Chaplain Corps celebrated its 240th anniversary yesterday, retired Army Chaplain David Smith reflected on how his personal experience of war and resiliency – particularly his own recovery from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on during his time in Iraq – affected his work.
As members of the clergy, chaplains possess some advantages that other leaders don’t. They are able to listen and counsel service members without prejudice. They can offer spiritual guidance to all faiths no matter the denomination. Service members know that anything they share with a chaplain is confidential.
Smith was deployed nine times during his 30 years in the Army. Nothing brought the war closer than his deployment to Al Anbar Province with the 82nd Airborne Division from August 2003 to April 2004.
“Within a month and a half of being there, I had four near-death experiences with improvised explosive devices and a helicopter hard landing,” Smith said. The area was part of the Sunni Triangle, and the insurgency “exploded” in the 82nd’s area of operations. He was the task force chaplain supporting 25,000 soldiers. Smith’s mission was to be there for others, but Smith found he also needed someone to be there for him.
“The challenges of my mission and the threat were ever-present and presented much stress,” he said. “I came back changed.” He remained stressed and hypervigilant through three more deployments.
Smith’s reactions to the attacks surprised him. Prior to deploying, Smith would prep himself spiritually, emotionally, professionally and physically, and he believed this rendered him somewhat immune to the challenges of the battlefield.
“I thought that this [prep] would have allowed me to be resilient so that no matter what I would go through I would bounce back and continue with the mission,” he said. While his preparation helped him get through deployment, Smith learned he was not invincible.
When he returned home from his last deployment in Afghanistan, Smith went to a psychological health professional and submitted to three days of testing.
“The psychotherapist in my outtake session asked me, ‘So why are you denying you have [posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)]?’”
It was the first time he had been asked that question. Smith was shocked at his diagnosis of something he thought only affected those engaged in fighting. To learn more about PTSD, he volunteered in a pilot program that used cognitive processing therapy. The experience reshaped his ministry, and Smith began applying a different approach to counseling service members with psychological health concerns. Later, he deployed to Afghanistan with two psychologists to assess high-risk soldiers and make sure resources would be available in their communities before they returned home.
“In all, the method was successful,” he said. “There was no suicidal ideation, no spouse or family abuse. It [cognitive processing therapy] had a positive effect.”
In Smith’s final deployment as a senior chaplain in Afghanistan, he served as mentor, coach and trainer for 450 chaplains and chaplain assistants.
Smith’s use of psychological health counseling is increasingly shared by chaplains in the military. In a recent pilot, chaplains teamed up with psychological health professionals to prepare service members for mission readiness before and during deployment.
The Army Chaplain Corps, one of the oldest branches of the military, was established July 29, 1775, to serve with the Continental Army. Since then, approximately 25,000 chaplains served in more than 270 major wars and combat engagements.