Nathan Graeser seemed destined for a foreign battlefield, but his war would be fought at home.
At 18, Graeser signed up for the Army National Guard expecting to serve one weekend a month while attending college. Then 9/11 happened. While awaiting deployment to Afghanistan, Graeser enrolled in officer training school. Months went by and then orders came down that Graeser should stay there while many in his unit, including a high school classmate he had enlisted with in Indiana, went overseas. His friend was killed by a landmine. Others came back less than whole.
“Everyone was jacked up and getting DUIs. Everyone felt horrible, like it should have been them [who died]. So I decided I wanted to help soldiers. I decided I wanted to be a chaplain,” said Graeser, now 31 and a Marina del Rey resident.
The choice sent Graeser to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and, after his commission as an Army National Guard chaplain in October 2011, to the USC School of Social Work’s pioneering Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families. The center has partnered with Los Angeles officials to place military social work interns at employment centers throughout the city, the first effort of its kind.
On Nov. 16, Graeser will take part in “Moral Injury and PTSD: Warriors, Families and Communities,” a forum at Loyola Marymount University intended to spur collaboration among clergy, social workers, services providers and veterans in creating a support network for service members returning from combat.
— Joe Piasecki
What sorts of challenges do those returning from combat face coming home to the Westside?
A lot of it are things every person experiences. But a young guy who’s coming back from deployment, has grown up and seen a lot of the world, doesn’t really want to call his mom and ask for help. He’s done and survived enough things to feel like he should be a man, but then he comes back and has a hard time fitting back in with society — navigating education benefits, finding employment. There’s a big stigma against National Guard and reserves soldiers. If they see you’re still in, employers say ‘I don’t think so.’
For others, spouses and family members have learned to live without you. Working your way back into relationships is a very difficult thing.
Part of my job is also to respond to crisis. I just did a memorial for one of my soldiers who committed suicide. There are about 22 veteran deaths a day by suicide at this point [according to a report this year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs].
Why so many?
Some of it is a recruiting issue, where we take people who maybe have other risk factors and add stress. Some of it is the combat. In the military, strength and self-sufficiency are highly encouraged, and those are two things that don’t bode well for asking for help.
Most people aren’t close to anyone who’s been to Iraq or Afghanistan. What role can they play in helping transitions?
One of the downsides of having a professional fighting force is it’s naturally isolating from the civilian world. When people go to war and come back, they often don’t have good lines of communication in their communities. And communities actually have the largest role to play. The majority of veterans don’t receive services through the VA. The reality of budget cuts and looming sequestration is there aren’t going to be the resources. It’s our job as a community to say we have a responsibility to people who’ve invested in and sacrificed for our country. One way is to begin to educate yourself on the effects of war. We’re all impacted. If you don’t have someone in your immediate family, you have a friend of a friend or a neighbor or someone in your community who has served. The security guard right over there [he points outside Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Del Rey] is a veteran.
What kinds of things shouldn’t a person say to a returning veteran?
Stay away from the ‘Have you ever killed someone? Tell me all your traumatic stories’ approach. It’s much closer to just being a friend, someone who cares.
So just treat them like people.
Go figure. Sometimes we think that because someone is a veteran of military service, a thank-you is to honor their trauma. Think of a real difficult memory and put it on your shirt. How would you feel if someone was like, ‘Oh, wow, you don’t have parents? You got in a car wreck a couple months ago? How did that feel?’ Our job as a community is to create a safe space for veterans. It’s not to force the conversation.
Sometimes in our awareness campaigns we also do a disservice. Only 20% of veterans are ever diagnosed with [post traumatic stress disorder]. What we can do is get past some of our stigmas and instead say veterans are a valuable resource. As a society we’d do way better if we embraced our warriors.
How does a person who opposed the war support someone who fought in it?
This is a big issue for faith communities as well. Most faith communities are about peace, so how do you rectify that with the idea that this person wasn’t about peace? In church they might have said hate the sin, love the sinner … don’t hate the player, hate the game. We have to progress the conversation to a duty of care and service. Whether we believe in war is not the question. The question is whether we have a role in caring for the people who served in war.
The LMU conference discusses ‘moral injury.’ What is moral injury?
Part of the nature of war is you’re in very high-pressure situations where you are forced to act in ways that might violate your moral code. PTSD addresses the symptoms of this; what moral injury addresses are the soul wounds that linger.
On the 16th we’re building a conversation around care providers, veterans and faith communities. We’re asking: What does it look like to treat a soul? And I believe our faith communities have answers to healing the soul. That’s kind of our thing.
Visit cal.lmu.edu to register for the forum.