As a military chaplain, I have to educate myself in learning and understanding the (underlying) causes of many invisible wounds that our service members bear and suffer from wars to better serve and care for them. I admit that I was very ignorant of PTSD, CPTSD, TBI, moral injury, and the like when I was in seminary formation, even as a young priest. Especially as an Asian person, I thought those matters were some small, insignificant, and overdramatized blowups of a psychological blockage or impediment. When I was younger, I wondered why “those people” could not overcome what seems to be simple and easy enough! Nonetheless, I was ignorant and wrong, even blinded, too, because I could not even see the effects of war and the loss of peace that some of my immediate and close family members had to go through. I had to educate myself in order to understand that the journey of finding (inner) peace is not easy… and I have learned to be more compassionate, patient, caring, and accepting of the reality, effects, and wounds that are left in people even when wars and past traumas are long gone.
The Viet Nam War played a big impact on my life in many different ways.
I am a child of the post-war Viet Nam. My parents and many of my family members were personally involved and affected by the war. On both my own father and mother’s sides, we had lost many loved ones to the war. My father was imprisoned by the Communists after the war, and my mother struggled for many years as a young wife trying to make end meets while her husband was imprisoned. Even when my father was released, he, like many others, was blacklisted and we never really could make a real living in that suppressive socialistic, corrupt, and totalitarian environment. My parents tried so hard to stay above the water, but we were always short. By the grace of God, we were granted permission to come here, given an opportunity to be free, and we worked hard to earn a better life in America!
While some of my struggles were hard to bear as a child who had very little to nothing of childhood, I never understood what the war had taken away from my parents. Of course, I knew that they were robbed of the opportunity of a better life, education, and many dreams, but I never understood the invisible scars and wounds that my father, mother, and the people of their generations had to bear. Many of them spent so much time just trying to survive that they never had the time to process what happened. They were not taught how to talk about it, which made them personally suffer for so long. While time does heal some of the pains, many can never be completely taken away.
For the longest time, I could not understand why my parents and people of their generations were so hard on us. Nor did I understand why they would have these unexplainable lashes of emotional over-reactions when I was growing up. To an ordinary person, especially me as a child, I just thought that they were being ridiculous and unreasonable. However, especially I now understand as a priest and military chaplain, traumatic pains, sufferings, and hurts do bear invisible effects on one’s soul forever. Unlike many people who advocate for mental health and self-care nowadays, their generation was never given the time to grieve, understand, and properly respond to the many losses they had to endure.
Unlike their Communist counterparts, there were no praise and assurance of their role, value, and worth in society. Contrary, they were looked down upon with suspicion and were rejected for fair and equal opportunities. They were labeled and blacklisted with former ties by the ruling regime. If they were to advance in society, they would have to accept the totalitarian rule, prove themselves worthy by professing the new ideologies, do something immorally to earn their place, and learn to accept the new system with its underlying demands of bribery, corruption, and the likes. As a child, I could still remember being told at school to “spy” and report those who could be suspicious in disturbing and usurping the common good… and, of course, all in the name of patriotism. Imagine what would be asked of adults at that time if they are to sell themselves out and be accepted into the new regime!
All of their past history and role models were now condemned and shamed. What were the stabilizing parts of their identity were now outlawed! In the years following the war, people in the south were living on the edge because they could wrongly be accused, robbed, or taken away if they are deemed as not being patriotic and faithful enough. Those who were involved with the past republic had to be “re-educated” to the new Marx-Lenin-Mao-Ho ideologies with harsh imprisonment, internment, and labor camps. If they were found to be tactically, operationally, or strategically tied to the fallen regime, they were called to report to a re-education and indoctrination period. Their family members would suffer greatly if they fail to show up or try to escape, too! So, imagine the pains of abandonment and rejection, imposed shame and guilt, as well as the physical and psychological tortures when they had to be imprisoned under the Communist regime.
In very real ways, my parents and their generation were living on the edge and basically had to survive and find ways to make end meets. People could not speak freely or be themselves because they were under constant scrutiny. Past monuments were torn down, graves dug up, and sacrifices and accomplishments were now turned into humiliation. Having to live in a new world that no longer appreciated or cared about them, they tried to survive, escape, or cope with the condemning reality.
Suppose you read what I just quickly described in a general way about the living conditions of the post-war Viet Nam, you can connect the dots to some of the possibilities and trigger points of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar psychological sufferings. Unfortunately, they did not have anyone to help them nor did they have the time to process, understand, and learn how to respond to what they were experiencing deep from within. Most of the time, they chose to suppress it because it was perhaps the only thing that was personally available at that time!
Our Viet Nam veterans underwent similar situations when they had to fight a war being inexperienced youngsters and had to come back to a condemning nation that hated them. So many were drafted and had to experience combat during the most tender and vulnerable stages of their lives. On top of the many internal class, racial, and social turmoils they had to endure from within the ranks, they also had to fight a war with enemies that were not easily identified, typically did not wear typical uniforms like them, and used dirty tricks on them. As a matter of fact, many of our current adversaries learned from the Communists‘ past (successful) tactics and guerrilla styles to psychologically deter and inflict traumatic and moral injuries on our service members. So many of our military personnel suffered immense shame and guilt having to hurt men, women, and young people who were dressed in civilian clothing or identified as locals in combat or within their areas of responsibility (even when they had to defend themselves).
In guerrilla warfare, it was hard to know the real enemies because there were no lines of demarcation and just about any open area was subject to attack. It was an endless war with dubious enemies with no real ground gains so our military personnel was constantly on edge. Armed conflicts seem endless so they were never psychologically decompressed, relaxed, or able to process matters. Alcohol and drugs were used in order to help deal with the stress they were facing. Unfortunately, those coping mechanisms became addictions because the apparent symptoms and wounds were numb but the inner pain, suffering, grief, and guilt were still there — repressed and buried deep within.
In the past, veterans came home welcomed, and those social rituals allowed them to have a type of ceremonial closure. Even though they will have to slowly work through post-traumatic triggers, social acceptance and welcome provided service members outward opportunities to rid themselves of stress and the terrible guilt that accompany those who return home from war. When troops come back home welcomed, it allows them to feel safe to decompress and slowly relive their past traumatic terrors without feeling weak, rejected, and abandoned. Nonetheless, Viet Nam veterans were neglected and left by themselves to take care of their own sanity. For too many years, Viet Nam veterans knew only the defeat of a nation they fought and suffered for, the victory of a regime that many of them believed to be evil, and the rejection of their own people that ignored them.
Like my parents and those who had to live and survive in Viet Nam after the war, the postwar years were long, hard, and lonely for Viet Nam veterans, too. Both were not welcomed and rejected by mainstream society. They were looked at with doubt and suspicion. They were told that they failed and were no good. Instead of reassurance and care, they were met with condemnation and judgment. All of those factors created a real identity crisis! So many of them learned to close up and not talk about what hurt or was stolen from them with a general (false) response, “No, it never really bothered me… I just got used to it or moved on.”
Nonetheless, when one chooses to defensively suppress and deny what hurts them, they are simply covering up the apparent wounds of war. They chose to suppress the sufferings or ended up turning to destructive behaviors and actions to numb the pains. In our ignorance, we had created a (social) generational gap when we isolated, rejected, and abandoned those who had to pay the psychological, traumatic, and post-war price. Today, we are still paying and bearing the agonies and detrimental effects of war that we have caused for veterans and those who were caught in past conflicts, especially when we do not choose to educate ourselves to better understand, support, and care for those who bear the invisible wounds.
As you can see, my life as a post-war child with parents and family members who were affected by the war as well as a priest who worked with many Viet Nam veterans before joining the military finally made sense. Even though I did not know or understand the sufferings that my parents and many of their generation went through when I was a child, God gives me the opportunity to learn in my own priestly ministry to care for those who are still suffering because of the same war that was fought as Americans. I now have a better knowledge of the extended effects of war, as well as an opportunity to accompany and care for those who are asked to go into harm’s way and continue to suffer from the wounds of war themselves. My life has been humanly and providentially interwoven by war so I can better understand and be present to those who might have no one to understand them.
Even though our society has recognized that war changes people, because no one is the same after they are done, we have fallen short of the effort to care for them. Even though not all will experience peace as it was — before the war or its trauma, we can be more compassionate, patient, and understanding so that they will not be alone in their darkest trials, pains, and sufferings. I hope what I have written today makes some sense to you. While the mission is hard at times, I find it to be an honor to accompany and be able to say to those who are suffering that they are not alone or abandoned, even if no one sees or understands the invisible wounds that they bear deep from within! We are not here to fix people because war and trauma have left their impacts on their souls, but we can all do our part to be more present so that they will never have to face another round of (national, social, or interpersonal) embarrassment, shame, guilt, abandonment, and rejection again.