Spiritual Lessons From the Desert
A depiction by Kevin LaMar Sr. of mental health issues related to military combat and the path of recovery.
American Field Hospital, Mogadishu, Somalia
5 June 1993
A Pakistani soldier was shot in the throat. Due to the extent of his injuries, and the overwhelming number of casualties, this soldier was assessed by triage as “un-save-able.” He was carried into a separate room and the stretcher was placed on the floor next to a stack of body bags.
An American Infantry Sergeant turned to one of his subordinates, an Airborne Private First Class (PFC), looked him straight in the eyes, and issued his next direct orders. The PFC was assigned to watch the man die and to log the time of death. Though it was obvious the soldier was suffering greatly, the PFC was to offer no assistance in any manner. He could not administer medical aid, give water, hold his hand, or even speak to him.
The Pakistani soldier sensed that he was not going to be helped and he panicked. He coughed, choked on his own blood, and vomited mucous, all the time grasping and clawing at the PFC’s boots between violent convulsions. As the PFC looked into the man’s doomed eyes, he recognized a mixture of two emotions mutually felt by both- desperation and helplessness. Forty-four minutes later, the man’s agony mercifully came to an end.
For years the PFC had nightmares reliving this event. The points that bothered him most were the facts that not only did he have the time to help the soldier, but also as a Combat Medic, he had the ability, skill, desire, and compassion to do so. His only reason was that he was under orders not to use those gifts.
After this incidence, the PFC assumed an extremely rebellious spirit that led to marital difficulties, financial fiascoes, various health problems, and eventually incarceration. He always foolishly felt that something was owed to him for going through his experiences. It was only after receiving a spiritual interpretation of his experiences that he found a positive and unselfish direction to his life.
I was that PFC and that incident in Somalia was a landmark in my life. It was a mitigating circumstance in my actions and thoughts, and after counseling and self-analysis, was instrumental in facilitating my acceptance of my calling as a Christian minister. I learned from those forty-four minutes that the value of time is subjective to its use. It motivated me to help those that are dying (physically and spiritually) and to perform to the best of my God-given ability.
AcceptanceI was really so traumatized by this event, because I thought that the outcome of the situation was a failure on my part. One of the most common symptoms of the fear of failure is perfectionism, an unwillingness to fail. This symptom stole my joy and creativity, because I perceived any failure as a threat to my self-esteem, and developed a tendency to focus my attention to the areas in which I failed rather than those in which I did well. I appeared to be highly motivated, but as I think back, my motivations usually came from a desperate attempt to avoid the low self-esteem I experienced when I failed. I was often appreciated because I could be counted on to do a thorough job, but was also taken advantage of because of this characteristic. When I failed, when others contributed to my failure, or when I was injured or insulted in some way, anger was the normal response. The common thing to do was to look for someone to blame and shift responsibility to. I was diagnosed with Dysthymic Disorder shortly after being released from prison and while going through a divorce. This depression was the result of anger turned inward and from a great sense of loss. Experiencing failure and fearing subsequent failure can lead to deep depression. Once depressed, I became emotionally numb and passive in my actions, believing there was no hope for change. I would occasionally exhibit outbursts of anger resulting from that failure. Generally, depression is the body’s way of blocking psychological pain by numbing physical and emotional functions. There is nothing quite as pitiful as being angry at yourself, having self-hatred. Unfortunately, my anger was not just limited to myself, but was also directed toward God. This destroyed all potential hope that I could receive anything from Him. It wasn’t that He was not prepared to help me. It was my anger that kept me from receiving that help. By using the acronym, FRESH, I was able to categorically address those deep issues I had with Family, Relationships, Employment, Spiritual development, and Health (physical and mental). After addressing my entitlement issues, these truths were easier to comprehend.
HealingThe Mental Health PEER Connection peer advocates, my church and select members, my family, and outstanding doctors at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center, were invaluable sources of in identifying the problem areas and daily maintenance after the initial change took place. Lesson learned: Success or failure is not the basis of your self-worth. Maybe the only way I could learn this lesson was by experiencing the pain of failure. It was essential for my growth and development. The more sensitive I became to the fear of failure and the problems it caused, the more I understood my own behavior as well as that of others. Part of my recovery is to continually remind myself of a quote from Charles Spurgeon, an English preacher of the 19th century. " Beware of no man more than of yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us."