God in War: How Religious Belief Affects Soldiers
When Shoshana Johnson decided to join the military, his intention was not to make history. Originally from Panama, where her Catholic foundation was laid, she and her family moved to the United States as a child. Johnson’s passion for food prompted her to attend cooking school. In 1998, the daughter of a retired army sergeant, she enlisted in the service to save money for school. In 2003, Johnson, who worked as a cook in the military, was in Iraq preparing meals for supply mechanics. But less than a month after arriving, she would become America’s first black prisoner of war.
The first package of care Johnson received after his deployment to the Middle East was from his mother. Inside the box was a rosary. âI remember calling my mother back when we were arriving in Kuwait and saying, ‘Hey, I left my rosary beads and stuff on the bedside table. Can you send it to me?’ Johnson said from his home in El Paso, Texas. The rosary was in his backpack about 200 miles south of Baghdad when, on March 23, 2003, a group of Iraqis ambushed the army specialist’s truck convoy in Nasiriyah.
Johnson was shot in both ankles when captured; the rosary remained, still in his backpack, buried among the rubble and the bodies of at least 11 American soldiers killed in the attack. Johnson and four male soldiers were taken prisoner and spent 22 days in captivity. It has been 14 years since the former army cook and other captives became national heroes upon their return home, but psychological injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to haunt her . While Johnson’s rosary was left in Iraq after her capture, she continued to carry her religious belief.
The relationship between religious belief and trauma has become a topic of study for Joseph Currier, assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama. His research examines the impact of religion or spirituality on veterans facing life after war and tries to understand how they might recover from the invisible scars of war. In a study published in Spirituality in clinical practice, Currier and others report that âsuicide has become one of the leading causes of death among those who served in the United States military. In fact, suicide deaths were more common than combat-related deaths among US military personnel in 2012 and 2013. âThe report suggests that in some cases, religious belief can make healing from trauma more difficult. âCertain forms of religiosity appear to increase the risk of suicide or PTSD after trauma,â said Currier.
Over the course of two years, Currier and his team recruited 125 veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and completed “at least one war zone deployment” to participate in the study. Therapists asked veterans “to rate how often they use religious methods to cope with the most stressful events in their lives.” Half of the study participants self-identified as a âreligious person,â and half of this group was affiliated with Protestant Christian organizations, while 40% identified themselves as Roman Catholics.
According to Currier, however, religious affiliation or the denomination of a religious group is not the most important factor in assessing the impact of faith on mental health: âIt is not enough for us to know that someone is religious or whether it is affiliated with Christianity or Buddhism, or know their religious affiliation. What is most important is that we know how religious someone is.
“I left a semblance of God in my life [back] in this god-forsaken goddamn country, âsays Mike Rudulph, a Marine Corps veteran who has toured Iraq twice. Rudulph did not participate in Currier’s study. “I gave up absolutely all notions or beliefs in any type of God after seeing what happened there.” Born and raised in Alabama, Rudulph says he struggled with his episcopal faith as a gay man years before he saw the fight. âObviously there were segments of the Episcopal Church in other places that embraced homosexuality, like the state that ordained the gay bishop, but at least where I was, it wasn’t was not there. “
Even after Rudulph’s partner joined the Marine Corps in hopes of being deployed together, the infantry sergeant withheld details of his sexuality from his family and his military unit. Rudulph was part of a division tasked with securing Iraqi detainees at Al-Taqqadum, an Iraqi air base located about 20 miles west of Fallujah. There his faith is regularly tested. How could God tolerate his acts of war while condemning his sexuality? “The only God I knew in Alabama was a God who was going to throw me into the depths of hell.”
In the study, Currier and the other researchers agree that “reducing the risk of suicide among US military populations has become a major public health priority.” Of the veterans who participated in the study, Currier reports that just over a quarter “have passed the suicide risk threshold.” In some cases, a person’s religious or spiritual perceptions actually increased their risk for suicidal ideation.
Felicia Hopkins, author of Halfway: stories of war that healed my life, is a retired army officer and trauma chaplain who spent a year caring for injured service members. She says it’s often the guilt that keeps troops from healing. “People [want] absolution, âHopkins said. âPeople who want to know that they will be forgiven, people who want to know that God understood what they had to doâ¦ I did my part. Now, God has to do his part. “
“If someone has a very rigidly positive belief system, where they believe I kind of have that implied agreement with God that if I’m just doing the right thing most of the time and trying to be a really good person. and refrain from doing things that are perceived to be immoral, that God will protect me 100% from suffering or adversity in life, âsaid Currier,â they can go through times of very high stress, potential trauma, and they’ll have no way of making sense of that within this very rigidly positive belief system. So what can happen then is that they’ll then move on to the other side of the things and will come to terms too much with where God goes from this all-good and all-powerful being to now God is seen to be completely untrustworthy and incompetent.
Shoshana Johnson leaned on her faith when she tried to make sense of her capture and later her release. âI had this horrible incident, but I have to go home. I got to see my family again, âJohnson said. “Other people don’t understand this, and a lot of people haven’t done anything wrong and don’t understand this, so I really think God has blessed me over and over again, and I don’t know why.”
His interpretation of the Catholic Church’s position on suicide – it is classified as a mortal sin – impacted choices to attempt suicide, resulting in multiple stays at a Texas psychiatric medical center. âI was in the planning stage and once at the hospital we talked about it and they were like, ‘Well, why? ” [and] I said, ‘Because I feel like God made a mistake, and then I can correct the mistake,’ âJohnson recalls. She didn’t believe she had earned the right to return home safely to her daughter and family. “In the Catholic faith, once you commit suicide, it is the ultimate sin, so all the preference [God] gave me will definitely end, at that point.
Veterans who had a positive or broad outlook on the role of religion, or spirituality, in life fared better – those “with ties to formal religious groups” showed fewer signs of PTSD or thoughts. and suicidal behavior. Perhaps, says Currier, the veterans benefited from the support they found in their church or spiritual groups, not just doctrine. âThe community can be crucial in supporting veterans who may be struggling with suicide or PTSD or other common mental health issues,â said Currier.
The study sample does “not reflect active and veteran populations in the United States.” Most of the veterans were men, young servicemen who had served in the military or in the Marine Corps. But the report can help validate veterans’ claims for mental health care providers who will consider their religious and spiritual beliefs as part of their treatment plan. “That’s the only way it works,” says Johnson, who is now being treated by a psychiatrist who also happens to be a Catholic. âIf you cannot accept my spirituality, how can I completely unload myself? “
After Shoshana Johnson’s mother reported the loss of her daughter’s Rosary in an interview, Johnson said Rosaries arrived at her home from all over the world. Instead of a backpack, Johnson now carries a purse, and tucked away in one of his pockets is a rosary he has been told has been blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Christina Brown Fisher is a freelance journalist from New York.