Tag Archives: war

Courage between Rocks and Guns


The following interview with Hieromonk Melchizedeck (Gordenko) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov) appeared in Orthodoxy in Ukraine, a Ukrainian language website on January 30th.

by Lado Gegechkori

HIEROMONK MELCHIZEDECK (GORDENKO) and monk Gabriel (Kairasov), on the night of February 20th, stood risking their lives on Grushevsky Street in Kiev between the police and the demonstrators, and in this way stopped the bloodshed for entire days.

LG: Tell us, fathers, what made you to go out to the street that day?

Fr. M: Once a long time ago I saw a photograph from Serbia, in which one priest was standing between the police and the demonstrators. I was filled with admiration for him—one man with a cross in his hands was able to stop a thousand people on one side, and a thousand on the other!

Our Desyatina Monastery is located very close to the epicenter of these events—even at night in the church we could hear fireworks, shouting from megaphones, and the noise of crowds. When I heard that on Grushevsky Street explosions were causing people to lose their arms, legs, and eyes, I understood that I should be there, so that I would not later be ashamed of myself. For some reason I remembered the example of a priest in Georgia, who ran out with a bench in his hands to route the gay parade. That man saw lawlessness in the streets and did not try to hide or wait it out in the church, but went out to make his position clear to the laity, and to inspire them by his example.

LG: As far as I understand it, you had agreed upon a plan?

Fr. M: No, we had no sort of plan. Early in the morning, Fr. Ephraim, Fr. Gabriel, and I prayed together, and after asking a blessing, we went out to the Maidan. None of us had even the slightest wavering or doubt. There was no plan. There was a goal—to do at least something to stop the violence.

LG: How did the demonstrators react to the appearance of men in vestments?

Fr. M: We were realistic about the fact that it is no longer possible to stop the police or demonstrators, and therefore we were ready to stand under the flying bullets and stones. But when people saw priests in front of them, standing between them and the police cordon, it was as if they had been dashed with boiling water. They calmed down almost immediately. A moment of something like a blessed reasonableness came over them.

Fr. G: The people standing there came up to us and said, “As long as you stand here, we will not throw any stones at the police.” This really inspired us all. We were able to restrain people until nightfall—only then did Molotov cocktails start flying at the police. But even in that moment, many of the demonstrators ran over to the police cordon and shouted to their comrades to cease their aggression. Some of these young fellows even climbed onto the roof of a burnt-out bus in order to pull out the protesters, thus placing themselves in the path of danger.

LG: Did you understand that you were risking your lives? After all, Molotov cocktails and grenades were blowing up around you.

Fr. G: When we were standing between the crowd of protesters and the police behind their shields, and all around us grenades were popping and cocktails were ripping, a hot bottle landed about five meters from me. But it did not explode… Fire was burning all around us, bottles were crashing and machinery was rumbling, but for some reason this cocktail did not explode. It would have scorched me and everyone around me in a moment, but it only hit the ground and fizzled out. Then I felt that the Lord was protecting us.

Later, however, people started using us as human shields—demonstrators walked up to us and threw stones and bottles with flammable mixtures from behind our backs. At that moment I felt a terrible bitterness for these people, whom we were calling to make peace, but who were nevertheless thirsting for blood. I felt that demons were mocking these human souls, inciting them to rage, and dulling their good sense.

LG: At what moment did you understand that it was time for you to leave the demonstration site?

Fr. M: We were not alone there—there were lay people standing next to us, both men and women. We were watching attentively, so that no one would throw stones and bottles at them—after all, we essentially bore responsibility for them at that moment. Therefore, when the situation came to a head, we decided to step back in order to guard those who stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder.

Some have spoken of provocations and aggression from the crowd, others, about the cruelty and brutality of the police. I cannot say anything of the kind. We did not want to find the guilty party; we wanted to make peace between both sides.
LG: Some are inclined to emphasize the cruelty of the police, while others blame the demonstrators for everything. What is your opinion, as eye-witnesses?

Fr. G: At the moment the passions were escalating, a man ran from out of the crowd. Disregarding the cold, he was bare to the waist. The man shouted to the crowd and the police to stop, and then fell to his knees and began to pray fervently. But the police jumped at him, took him by the feet and dragged him to the cars. I tried to stop them, but in vain. I was sincerely sorry for that man—it seemed to me that God’s grace was visiting him at that moment.

It is not right to bet in this situation on one side or the other. We saw cruelty from both camps—each of them was sick in their own way.

LG: At that moment, people of all different religious confessions were gathered in the center of town. Did you have any confrontations with them?

Fr. M: During those hours that we spent at the Maidan, people from all different confessions came there: Greek-Catholics, clergy from the “Kiev Patriarchate” and the Catholic Church; and what is the most amazing of all—Buddhists!

Fr. G: Even a Jew came up to me in his kippah, and standing next to me, started praying. I listened to him amazed: he was praying Orthodox prayers with us!

Fr. M: To me a young man came up, introduced himself as Seryezha, and asked me whether we accept heretics. “Heretics in what sense?” I asked. “I am a Baptist,” Seryezha smiled. “Of course we accept them. Come on over!”
This place was the borderline of peace, and there could be no talk of “acceptance” or “non-acceptance.”

LG: That is, the common woe united all those who can’t find a common language during peaceful times?

Fr. G: There was no division between confessions or ideology. This was not the time for that. When a mother sees a tree falling over the sandbox, she won’t only grab her own child—she’ll pick up someone else’s as well, be he the neighbor’s or a street kid. At that moment, we were all related.

And do you know what is most amazing? People started calling us from Kiev and other cities—both lay people and clergy—saying that they wanted to stand with us shoulder-to-shoulder when we go out there again. Literally just a few days ago, a man who had been standing in the barricades at that moment came to our church, and said that he no longer wants to stand there, now he wants to pray.

Many protesters who saw us there said the same thing. They had thought that a stone is the weightiest thing there could possibly be. But when they saw us, they recognized that compared to certain spiritual things, a stone is lighter than a feather.

LG: You risked your lives, standing there in those minutes. Tell us, did you remember the New Martyrs then, and were you inspired by their example?

Fr. G: Do you know, when we went to the Maidan, I began to pray silently. And among all the other saints whom I was asking for help, some of the first who came to mind were the Georgian martyrs Shalva, Bidzina, and Elisbara. These were three princes who stirred an uprising in Georgia against the Islamic oppression. Having gathered two thousand warriors under their banners, they defeated the army of the Persian shah, which numbered 10,000 strong. But when hundreds of women and children were taken captive by the shah, the princes surrendered without a second thought. The captives were released, but the princes were executed. Their martyrdom consisted in their living and fighting for the people’s sake, and they were ready to die in order to save innocent lives.

I also recalled the example of one Russian commander who fought in Chechnya—his name was kept secret, but the mujahedin announced a price on his head. When the Chechens took several peaceful citizens captive, he unhesitatingly gave himself up in exchange for the captives’ freedom. He was brutally murdered, but the captives survived.
Who are the New Martyrs? What can we call the feeling that guides them? I would call it “ordinary patriotism.” IC

Orthodox Christian Statement Opposing Military Action Against Syria: Supporting narrative

Supporting narrative

The following offers some narrative support for the Statement. Whereas the narrative supports the succinct text of the Statement, it too is necessarily brief; however, numerous supporting materials are offered as background to help broaden understanding (we will begin adding these shortly).

Please bear in mind, this is offered as support and background, not dogma. Mistakes are mine and you are invited to bring them, and dissent or support, to my attention. The supporting documents and our website hopefully fill in many blanks that may exist in the narrative.

Pieter Dykhorst

Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
[email protected]

1.  The OPF foundation of the Statement:

In blessing peacemakers in the Beatitudes as the children of God, Christ makes the vocation of  healing damaged relationships a hallmark of authentic Christianity. Yet, the path of peacemaking is as messy and conflicted, individually and collectively, as is any aspect of Christian faith and living. What follows is a general summary of what we believe and how we apply it to the current situation. It cannot be taken as a dogmatic or binding statement on anyone’s conscience. We are children of the Church working out our salvation within its sanctuary; this is no exception.

a.  While not all OPF members are against all war at all times, we believe war is always an evil that comes about as a consequence of human weakness and that the good we pursue is less a negative avoidance of war but a positive, robust, and broad pursuit of just alternatives that end current wars and make future wars unnecessary. Thus, before we are “anti-war,” we are “pro-peace.”

However, the Christian peacemaking vocation is not passive. True peacemaking requires foresight and is a preventative work requiring wisdom, faith, compassion for all, courage, and a commitment to justice as well as mercy. Preemptive peacemaking undercuts the foundations of violence long before unavoidable crises that produce violence and war result.

Once war comes, violence always breeds more violence, presently or in the future as the roots of pain and suffering, bitterness and anger, revenge, division, and fear take hold and eventually bear the fruit of more violence. The Gospel is anathema to violence as a legitimate conflict resolution strategy.

b.  We believe when war seems unavoidable and does come, it is always a failure and must be terminated at the first possible opportunity and repented of after. Victory in war can never be celebrated but may sometimes be a least-bad outcome that must still be mourned: we should beg God to show us other means to resolve differences with our enemies.

There is sometimes debate among OPF members about when a war might in fact be unavoidable, when some understandable resort to violence seems necessary. We will not enter that conversation here except to acknowledge its legitimacy and to affirm our consistent opposition to violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy; however our website is replete with resources addressing this issue. We are united, however, in our conviction that war must never in any case be other than a truly unavoidable last resort.

We do not believe in this case that the current call to military action can possibly, in any rational framework, be considered necessary or an unavoidable last resort. Thus, we not only oppose this action but we believe there is no “economy” possible for it. Too many viable non-violent, political, legal, and humanitarian alternatives exist: they may fail, but they must be tried.

c.  We do not weigh one side’s actions against the other to make some qualitative or quantitative judgement of who is more evil and who less. Obviously, if we deem war always evil, all sides engaged in the Syrian civil war have resorted to evil solutions.

We do not base our opposition on political considerations or on party affiliations.

To be clear, we are not naive or without personal and even collective judgements: our appeal, however, rests on none of them. Active pursuit of all viable non-violent solutions requires a proper understanding of the problem. Our Statement must be understood to go beyond opposition to military action to engaging in finding and implementing just solutions.

d.  We must acknowledge that persuasive ideological, pragmatic, and sometimes impassioned arguments are being made for and against military action and that OPF members struggle with them as much as anyone might. Supporting documents address these arguments as broadly as possible.

The current situation in Syria and the region is extraordinarily complex and volatile, and we appreciate honest debate as Christians struggle for understanding and solutions. Many international actors have conflicted interests in Syria. Syria’s civil war does not consist of two monolithic entities pitted against each other: history, culture, religion, language, and ethnicity combine in a way outsiders cannot easily understand, creating a confusing mixture of loyalties and interests. Too many simplistic views are being presented in the US media and are grossly misleading because of their misunderstanding.

We make this acknowledgement and offer supporting arguments out of sympathy for those reading here who, like many of us have, may come to a similar vocational commitment through long and conscientious struggle and who value thoughtful and prayerful consideration of other views.

e.  Finally, we simply state that legal options exist for dealing with the crime of chemical weapons use. As, for many, this is taken as sufficient grounds for war, please consider that whoever–Assad, other officials, generals or lower commanders, and/or opposition forces–has used chemical weapons, this war will end and avenues for justice exist and will be viable.

The wight of evidence for guilt for the attack on 21 September may point to the Assad regime, but please consider dissenting opinions and evidence that suggests some rebel factions may also have used chemical weapons on other occasions. As a basis for war, none of this is sufficiently clear or conclusive.

2.  The Orthodox Justifiable War position:

a.  For many within the Orthodox Church there exists some uncertainty about when war may be a lesser evil or lesser good or when war may be otherwise justifiable. The OPF’s position is clearly stated in the first section above. We would not, therefore, base our opposition to any war on a conditional framework like Just War theory although we appreciate the robust debate among some Orthodox on the subject.

Our website contains many fine resources dealing with the questions of “lesser evil,” “lesser good,” and other problems created by real-world conflict scenarios.

Our comments here are restricted to the “justifiable war tradition,” as articulated and defended by Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster in his book The Virtue of War because he argues strongly that the contemplated military attack on Syria would not be justifiable. His books are listed in the bibliography. Any further supporting comments from him will be linked as we are made aware of them. He makes a distinction between Western Just War Theory and what he considers to be an Orthodox justifiable war tradition, an argument developed in his book. he has also written an excellent book on the pacifist tradition within Orthodoxy called The Pacifist Option.

b.  Obviously, our consistent opposition to war would not always find common cause with opposition from within a conditional moral framework. But in this case, the OPF finds it helpful to include in our statement an appeal to those who adhere to justifiable war principles. Fr. Alexander argues a “dual trajectory” (of pacifism and justifiable war) within Orthodoxy, and we feel that when we can agree in opposition to a particular war, it only strengthens our appeal and Orthodox unity to do so.

We thank Fr. Alexander for his contribution to crafting a clause in the Statement that allows us to include his “rail” in the dual trajectory, thus allowing him to support us and broaden our appeal to all Orthodox who are concerned about principled approaches to war within Orthodox moral tradition.

c.  We are concerned about the trend among some Orthodox to base their support or opposition to this or any war on purely political, prudential, or other transient moral/ethical grounds. This narrative with supporting documents, not to mention our entire website, intends to help Orthodox who are seeking moral clarity by furthering healthy and informed discussion.

d.  Additional considerations of justifiable war principles applied to the current situation regarding possible US involvement in Syria will be added to our supporting documents. Good sources to include are welcome. Please send these to me at [email protected]. Important points include:

  1. Consideration of punishment for crossing a “red line,” violating an international humanitarian norm, ignoring a US threat, committing a war crime;
  2. Considerations of deterrence against future use of WMD;
  3. Considerations of how this would be a defensive war from the US perspective;
  4. Considerations of what US involvement would look like in a defensive war from the Syrian perspective (including the government’s perspective and Syrian civilian’s perspective);
  5. Considerations of rules of proportionality;
  6. Considerations of non-combatant immunity (re: collateral damage);
  7. Considerations of prompt termination when a clear and just goal is met;
  8. Considerations of last resort;
  9. Consideration of whether doctrines of “Responsibility to Protect” accord with the Justifiable War tenet of just cause.

It is our contention, aside from the OPF’s clear and consistent opposition to all violent conflict resolution strategies, that the contemplated US action would not be merely problematic under a justifiable war framework but would clearly violate all its basic tenets.

We anticipate robust disagreement on one or more points but welcome honest and careful argument in opposition.

3.  Other Orthodox and Christian non-Orthodox positions being discussed:

a.  The OPF locates its opposition to war in the positive and robust vocational peacemaking principles of the Gospel as articulated by Christ, the Apostles, Fathers of the Church, Saints, and contemporary Orthodox writers as well as in numerous writings and icons found throughout our tradition and history. As such, our position seeks to preclude what might otherwise be self-serving, rational, or prudential arguments.

We do not reject those but rather believe them to be transient and reversible and thus not sufficient alone, certainly not foundational.

There are many such arguments currently circulating. We will address as many as is reasonable in our supporting documents; we briefly address two here:

b.  Those whose lives, loved ones, property, and way of life are existentially threatened as the Christians’ are in Syria cannot be considered self-serving in their cry for help from harm. We stand in prayer and tears with all Syrian’s particularly our Christian friends and family, praying daily for prompt peaceful resolution to the conflict. We ask God for wise and courageous leadership to show us how this may be accomplished and for the strength to follow.

Nevertheless, we see no help in the US plan to intervene. Those who disagree are invited to include their views in our conversation. We hope to include these in our supporting documents.

b. Last, we suggest recent polls in the US showing unprecedented opposition among the electorate must surely carry some weight. We do not base our position on transient popular sentiment, but this might be a convergent moment when the sheer weight of dissent from diverse quarters must give pause. We acknowledge minority voices are often lonely prophetic voices and the current majority view does not imply the minority is wrong. We merely take pause.

A concluding statement

Nothing thus far should be taken as an exhaustive or exclusive presentation of important issues and points. We are acting under time constraints and wish to get this posted and to begin adding supporting documents. All feedback is welcome.

Things not mentioned here may be found under categories in the supporting documents.

Thank you,

Pieter Dykhorst
Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship


When Killing is Just Pressure on the Trigger

by Brandon Frazier

No act is more violent than taking another’s life. Four years of my life were defined by training to commit, attempting to commit or committing these very acts of violence. During that period I was one of the unfortunate Marines put into situations where murder seemed to be my only option. For me, this taking of lives was only half of the sad and violent story that was my life from ages 18 to 22. The other half of the story is one that most people do not consider when they sign the military contract that gives away the right to their own lives.

It’s the story of friends that you lose in war that is left untold in recruiting films. It’s the story of the friends so badly wounded that they will never live a full life again. Such stories shaped my life in the aftermath of the violent confusion that defined my years in the Marine Corps infantry.

What made me realize the true severity and true weight of the act of murder was a series of incidents on November 26, 2004 – a sunny and warm Thanksgiving Day in Fallujah, Iraq. It was my unit’s third straight week without a shower, hot meal or change of clothes. The day started normally, mortars and rockets exploding outside the walls of the house we had made into our temporary central command. I remember thinking as I put my boots on that this day felt different.

The first task of that day was to retrace our steps of the last 21 days and show a “body snatcher” team where we had killed people so they could dispose of the remains. This mission was supposed to be simple. I thought it would get me out of the daily patrol and thus maybe save my life. It would be a vacation day.

What actually happened was to take a huge emotional toll that I will have to live with the rest of my life. The things I saw can only be described as something from a terrible nightmare or a gruesome war movie. The bodies were barely human – few human characteristics remained. This was the first time I had seen the results of my violence up close. I felt disgusted with myself knowing I had done such things to another living being.

Unfortunately, I was unable to avoid the daily patrol that day. In fact, my platoon had waited for me to get back so I would not be left out. On this patrol I watched my close friend get killed by a machine gun. He, two others and I went into a house where there were six men in a room with the door closed and mattresses on the ground so they could not be heard moving around. Brad walked in front of the closed door and was shot seven times in his body and twice in his armor. He died before he hit the ground.

In the confusion that occurs after such an event, I – who was directly behind Brad – fell onto the stairs behind.

Everything around me was moving in slow motion. Once I regained my composure I realized what had happened and was so enraged that what I did next was the complete opposite of every human instinct in my body. Instead of trying to help my friend, as most would have, I went to the door that Brad had died in front of and kicked it in and shot wildly into the room.

The story of this day is important because it is an accurate account of the ways in which I have handled violence in the past and illustrates the reasons why I handle violence now. The act of killing, in these years, was as simple as three pounds of pressure on a trigger, and that’s how we were trained. What I realize now, astonishingly for the first time, is that I should have questioned my orders at every instance when I was told to go somewhere to take another’s life and that killing another living being is far more complicated than three pounds of pressure on a trigger.

There is no contract with any government in any country that can justify murder of any kind. By the same token, I cannot justify my actions by claiming that I was simply being obedient. Those were my decisions. I made them, and now I must live with them forever.

Now I feel terrible for what I have done. I’ve been haunted by nightmares every night since returning home. These experiences, my education and the reevaluation of my past have brought me to where I am today when it comes to violence. I have seen firsthand what the most gruesome violence looks like and I know that I was capable of committing it. I am actively trying to learn about being a nonviolent person and have worked hard to avoid violence. So far I have been successful.

What I am most afraid of is not the person with the guns, it is how I will react to the violence they bring into my life. Will I revert to the instincts that were drilled into my head while in the military – the same instincts that sent me through the door shooting wildly? Or will I remember what it felt like to see the dead bodies that my friends and I had killed, and be sickened with the thought of taking another’s life?

It has and will continue to be a learning process for me and I hope very much that I can be the caring and compassionate person I believe I am. ❖

Brandon Frazier is a student at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. This essay was written for a class on “The Principles and Practices of Peace” taught by Colman McCarthy. Reprinted from The National Catholic Reporter.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59

‘Step Back from the Brink of War': OPF’s Iran Appeal

The following statement has been sent to President Bush and members of the US legislature:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Christ spoke these words not just to the crowd assembled before him, but to all men and women of all nations and all times – including those dealing with international relations in the 21st Century. The current state of affairs between the United States and Iran causes American members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship to speak out before it is too late to step back from the brink of war.

This is a crisis with larger dimensions. The interests of Israel, China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations are involved, but the focus of this perilous standoff is a line drawn in the sand between Tehran and Washington. If a solution is not found there, it will not be found.

The current impasse was reached by a road littered with misunderstanding, insults, provocations and meddling. The US helped to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, aided Saddam Hussein in his brutal war against Iran during the 1980s, and threatened to use nuclear weapons against Iran in 2006. This is not to ignore transgressions by other nations, especially Iran, such as the taking of hostages in Tehran , systematic violation of human rights within Iran, or recent inflammatory statements by the Iranian government.

Actions lead to reactions in a cycle of ever-escalating hostility. The first step on the way to peace, however, must always be putting one’s own house in order. To do that – to show the forbearance and compassion Christ asks of us, rather than the bellicosity of those who “live by the sword” – we urge that the following policies be adopted by our government:

Telling the Truth:

Our leaders should admit that they do not, in fact, know whether or not there is a nuclear threat from Iran, that nuclear enrichment is not in itself an offense, and that human rights abuses have occurred and do occur on our side, not only on theirs. The New Testament makes clear that it is in each human soul that the blessings of God are won: through meekness, mercy, and purity of heart. If – as Abraham Lincoln noted during our Civil War – we would hope to be on God’s side, we must avoid deception, spin and disinformation.


The Orthodox Christian tradition of conciliarity (decision-making by the whole Church, rather than a single leader or a small group) can also be helpful in international relations. The US must not just pressure our allies to see the world as we see it, but needs to be prepared to listen to and consider their perspectives.

Moreover, there are many other countries, not on the UN’s Security Council or members of the ‘Nuclear Club’, whose destinies are affected by whatever more powerful nations decide. We need to heed their voices as well.

Seeking Common Ground:

There must be direct negotiations among affected parties. America has legitimate needs; so does Iran. Neighboring nations need to be reassured that they will not be the unwilling victims of regional chaos. The conflict in Iraq , a resolution of the world-wide ‘peak oil’ crunch and many other challenges would be immeasurably easier with a constructive US-Iran relationship in place.

Commitment to Reducing Nuclear Risk:

So long as some nations claim a right to stockpile and use nuclear weapons in their own self-interest, it is inevitable that other nations will see no reason not to follow suit. Since the recent tests by North Korea, nine nations are known to possess nuclear weapons. As the only country which has used such weapons in war, the US has a special responsibility to work for their reduction and eventual elimination. Realistic humility leads us Americans to see that we have no special claim to the wisdom needed for this reduction. Every nation and all our children are at risk, and all must be part of the solution.

Since the credibility of the US was damaged at home and abroad after we invaded Iraq on the false claim that the Saddam government was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, it is no wonder that there is now a widespread and non-partisan lack of confidence in their government among the American people. Staying the course is a good idea only if the course is right. The recent elections demonstrate a growing consensus that a new direction must be found.

If President George W. Bush desires to forge a legacy of real statesmanship, it is not too late to step back from the brink. With a genuine will to find alternatives to war, they can surely be found.

Have we the will to wage peace?

Partial list of signers of the Iran Appeal:

Bishop Basil of Amphipolis

Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos

Bishop Tikhon, Retired Bishop of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the West; Orthodox Church in America

David A. Beck

Fr Ted Bobosh,St. Paul Church, Ad junct Professor, the University of Dayton

Dr. Peter Bouteneff,Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Archpriest John Breck

Eleni Cambourelis-Benedikt

Alice Carter

Mary Dibs

Jim Forest,OPF international secretary

Aaron Haney, MD

Archpriest Stephen C. Headley

Dr. John D. Jones, Professor, Marquette University

Carol M. Karos

Joel Klepac

Monica Klepac

Maria C. Khoury, Taybeh, Palestinian Occupied Territories, author

Dr. Kevin Lawrence,Chair, String Department, North Carolina School of the Arts

Allison and Don Lemons, Wichita, KS

Dr. Jacques-Jude Lepine, Media Center Director Profile School

Dr. Daniel F. Lieuwen

Michael Markwick, artist berlin,netherlands

Frederica Mathewes-Green, author and columnist

Joe May, Director, Matthew 25 House, Akron , Ohio

Fr. John McGuckin. Professor of Byzantine Christianity, Columbia University

Archpriest George Morelli,Ph.D., Coordinator, Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling Ministry, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese

Joanna Novac, Irvine, CA

Archpriest Michael J. Oleksa, adjunct faculty, Alaska Pacific University

John W. Oliver, Professor Emeritus, Malone College

Kimberly Pandorf

Fr. Harry Pappas,faculty, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

Alex Patico

Fr. Michael Plekon, St Gregory the Theologian Church, Professor, Baruch College of the City University of New York

Dr. Albert Raboteau,professor, Princeton University

Mother Raphaela, abbess, Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, Otego, NY

Cathy Rusyniak

Sheri San Chirico, coordinator, OPF- North America

Monk James Silver, member OPF-NA Steering Committee

Eric Simpson

Sbdn. Matthew Spoonemore

James Weave, Bellingham, Washington

Renee Zitzloff,coordinator, OPF Minnesota chapter

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007

War’s Hidden Cost: damaged souls and minds


Every war leaves deep scars on its survivors, not least the soldiers who were involved.

In World War I there was “shell shock.” World War II vets had “battle fatigue.” The troubles of Vietnam veterans led to the codification of post-traumatic stress disorder. In combat, the fight-or-flight reflex floods the body with adrenaline, permitting impressive feats of speed and endurance. After spending weeks or months in this altered state, some soldiers cannot adjust to a peaceful setting. A visit to a crowded bank may become an ordeal. They display what doctors call “hypervigilance.” They sit in restaurants with their backs to a wall. A car’s backfire can transport them back to Baghdad.

The New York Times reported in December that a U.S. Army study notes that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.

“There’s a train coming that’s packed with people who are going to need help for the next 35 years,” said Stephen L. Robinson, a 20-year Army veteran who is now the executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, an advocacy group.

“I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war,” said Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, who served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs from 1994 to 1997.

Dr. Matthew J. Friedman, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, said he believes the estimates are conservative. “I’m not an alarmist, but I think this is a serious problem. It may be worse just because of the nature of the war,” he said, citing extended tours of duty and the change of mission from liberation to occupation.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of guys with classic post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said Dr. Evan Kanter, a psychiatrist at the Puget Sound Veterans Hospital in Seattle. “We’re anxiously waiting for a flood that we expect is coming. And I feel stretched right now. Such costs of war are not revealed by official casualty counts. People see the figure of 1,200 dead. Rarely do they see the number of seriously wounded. Almost never do they hear about the psychiatric casualties.”

Ninety percent of those posted to Iraq reported being shot at. A high percentage also reported killing an enemy combatant, or knowing someone who was injured or killed. About half said they had handled at least one dead body.

“In [Iraq’s] urban terrain, the enemy is everywhere, across the street, in that window, up that alley,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who served as a platoon leader with the Florida Army National Guard for ten months, going on hundreds of combat patrols around Baghdad. “It’s a fishbowl. You never feel safe. You never relax.” In his platoon of 38 people, eight were divorced while in Iraq or since they returned in February. One man in his 120-person company killed himself after coming home. “Too many guys are drinking,” he said. “A lot have a hard time finding a job. I think the system is vastly under-prepared for the flood of mental health problems.”

On his second day in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany, a translator attached to the 10th Special Forces Group, suffered what he thought was a nervous breakdown after seeing one of the Iraqi dead. “I wasn’t functioning. I was having physical symptoms. I was having a behavioral reaction,” he recalled. After struggling through the night, he said he decided to tell his superior officer out of fear that “if we do go out on a patrol and I do freeze up, that could have consequences too.” Instead of being given help, he was told to reconsider for the sake of his career. “The message was: ‘Hey, you’re a coward. You’re acting like a coward.'” Pogany was sent back to the U.S. where he was charged with cowardice, though the charge has since been dropped. “My career is probably at an end. I’ve had my security clearance revoked. I’m still struggling to get things set straight.” Pogany hopes that by speaking out he can help other veterans. “The most important thing is that trauma, whether experienced in combat or anywhere else in life, needs to be looked at as an injury to the mind. An injury to the mind needs to be treated just like an injury to the leg, whether you have shrapnel wounds or gunshot wounds.”

Capt. Tim Wilson, an Army chaplain serving near Mosul, counsels up to ten soldiers a week for combat stress. He noted that fierce battles produce turbulent emotions. “There are usually two things they are dealing with,” he said. “Either being shot at and not wanting to get shot at again, or after shooting someone, asking, ‘Did I commit murder?’ or ‘Is God going to forgive me?’ or ‘How am I going to be when I get home?'”

“During the war, they don’t have the leisure to focus on how they’re feeling,” said Dr. Sonja Batten, a psychologist at the Baltimore Veterans Hospital. “It’s when they get back and find that their relationships are suffering and they can’t hold down a job that they realize they have a problem.”

Robert E. Brown, 35, was proud to be in the first wave of Marines invading Iraq last year, now finds himself in the first ranks of returning soldiers unhinged by what they experienced. He served for six months as a chaplain’s assistant, counseling wounded soldiers, organizing makeshift memorial services and filling in on raids. He knew he was in trouble by the time he was on a ship home, when the sound of a hatch slamming would send him diving to the floor. After returning home, he began drinking heavily and saw his marriage fall apart. He was discharged and returned to his hometown, Peru, Indiana, where he slept for two weeks in his Ford Explorer, surrounded by mementos of the war. “I just couldn’t stand to be with anybody,” he said.

Dr. Batten started him on the road to recovery by giving his torment a name, an explanation and a treatment plan. But 18 months after leaving Iraq, he takes medication for depression and anxiety and returns in dreams to the horrors of war nearly every night. The scenes repeat in ghastly alternation, he says: the Iraqi girl, three or four years old, her skull torn open by a stray round; the Kuwaiti man imprisoned for 13 years by Saddam Hussein, cowering in madness and covered in waste; the young American soldier, desperate to escape the fighting, who sat in the latrine and fired his M-16 through his arm; the Iraqi missile speeding in as troops scramble in the dark for cover.

“That’s the one that just stops my heart,” said Brown. “I’m in my rack sleeping and there’s a school bus full of explosives coming down at me and nowhere to go.”

In July 2003, as Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine reservist from Belchertown, Massachusetts, prepared to leave Iraq after six months as a truck driver, he at first intended to report traumatic memories of seeing corpses, his parents, Kevin and Joyce Lucey, said. But when a supervisor suggested that such candor might delay his return home, Lucey played down his problems. Haunted by what he had seen, at home he spiraled downhill. He began to have delusions about having killed unarmed Iraqis. In June, at 23, he hanged himself in the basement of the family home.

“Other marines have verified to us that it is a subtle understanding which exists that if you want to go home you do not report any problems,” Mr. Lucey’s parents wrote in an e-mail message. “Jeff’s perception, which is shared by others, is that to seek help is to admit that you are weak.”

Meanwhile U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq are beginning to show up at homeless shelters around the country. Agencies assisting the homeless fear they are the leading edge of a new generation of homeless vets not seen since the Vietnam era. “We already have people from Iraq on the streets,” said Linda Boone, director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “It’s happening and this nation is not prepared for that.”