Independent filmmaker Karen van Vuuren has produced a documentary that clearly shows that spiritual damage is a major part of post-traumatic stress disorder. That reality, unfortunately, is not yet recognized by most of the medical community.
“People have talked about PTSD as a brain injury, but I see it as a soul wound. And unless this is addressed as a soul injury, real healing is not possible,” van Vuuren told me this week from her home in Boulder, Colo.
“Go in Peace” was largely filmed in a soldiers’ home in Sandusky, Ohio, watching as hospice therapists tried to help aging vets suffering from PTSD put their lives in order during their final days.
In addition to some moving interviews with vets who talked about the pain, loss, grief and guilt that they experienced in combat, the documentary features two expert commentators: Dr. Ed Tick, founder of the non-profit Soldier’s Heart and author of “War and the Soul,” and advanced registered nurse practitioner Deborah Grassman, co-founder of project Soul Injury and author of “Peace at Last.”
Together, they talk about the causes of PTSD, which Tick has re-named “post-terror soul distress.”
One central conclusion is that soldiers are forced to take actions in combat so contrary to their own core values that they lose their sense of identity. That forces them later to try to construct a new, positive identity, one that includes their previous experiences.
But Grassman points out that most soldiers fight for two things: cause and comrades. Ever since Vietnam, many soldiers have felt there was no good reason to be fighting someone else’s civil war in a foreign country. And most of them have lost some of their comrades in combat and feel guilty that they came home when the buddy they were supposed to be looking out for didn’t.
Therein lies the problem, according to “Go in Peace.” To heal, a vet has to want to heal, and many feel they don’t deserve it.
The solution in many cultures involves purification rituals that allow vets to rejoin society again without stigma. Vets need to forgive themselves, and that frequently involves redemption and atonement by doing something to make the world a better place.
That’s a neat summary of what I’ve come to call the “wounded soul syndrome,” which has not yet been recognized by the medical community as a major component of PTSD – but which should be.
“Go in Peace” also addresses the isolation that many vets experience because they feel they can’t talk about what they’ve been through and what they’ve done. In reality, the film says, that’s because society has turned its back on the vets, not having the strength to listen to what they so badly need to say.
“As a culture, we don’t want to know what these vets have been through,” notes van Vuuren. “And they recognize that we don’t want to know so they don’t want to tell us.”
Van Vuuren credits her father Jack as being the inspiration of her film. A World War II vet who suffered all his adult life with undiagnosed and untreated PTSD, Jack told his daughter in his final days that at age 14, he and a friend had strangled a Nazi soldier in their village in occupied Holland before fleeing to join the Allied forces.
“My father told me that the teenage German guard he killed was not much older than he was and ‘probably didn’t know why he was there.’ But, as my dad put it, ‘He was the enemy, and we had to take him out,’” van Vuuren says on her Web page, https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/go-in-peace-transform-a-veteran-s-life-film
“Jack had never shared anything about his wartime experiences,” she adds. “His ‘confession’ woke me up to all he had carried inside for all those years, and to my inability to recognize his grief and to create a safe environment for healing. In telling me this story of such an intimate killing, my father recognized, maybe for the first time, the human being in the first person he had killed. His sharing was a tacit plea for forgiveness.”
Now the film is beginning to be shown at conferences, but her goal is to raise funds for additional studio production to make it as good as it can be, then to make it available as a free resource for professional caregivers and families of veterans. Ultimately, she’d like to tour with the film and make it available to audiences around the country so that vets can find relief for their spiritual wounds.
“Treating PTSD with medication and not as a spiritual illness reflects the medical model, not the holistic approach, and that doesn’t work,” says van Vuuren.