An anti-war activist using concepts of shamanism and mythology has been invited by the U.S. military to help deal with American soldiers’ war trauma.
Since spring, Albany resident Ed Tick has been running workshops on post-traumatic stress disorder for military chaplains as part of the Army’s annual chaplain training.
His presentations occur at three-day retreats held throughout the country, including Hawaii and Norfolk, Va., and in Germany. By the end of the year, he will have conducted eight sessions for about 2,000 chaplains from the Army, National Guard and Army Reserve.
Tick is a psychotherapist and founder of Soldier’s Heart, a Troy-based organization that provides support and programming for veterans. Initially, most of his clients were Vietnam War-era vets, but in recent years the balance has shifted and he’s been seeing younger veterans from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tick said chaplains who counsel the troops crave information about how to deal with their emotional and psychological scars.
“Troops are coming back after multiple deployments, and they’re really troubled,” he said.
Tick’s involvement in the military is relatively new, and a little surprising. He has long been active in anti-war causes, and his methods are unorthodox. He treats post-traumatic stress disorder as a spiritual wound, rather than a psychological or physical wound, and his world view draws upon Greek mythology, American Indian shamanism and the Bible.
Tick said that in reaching out to him, the Pentagon is recognizing that the problem of PTSD is extensive and that they don’t have the solution.
“To have the Pentagon stamp of approval on my work is incredible,” he said.
Tick said he tries to teach chaplains how to transfer religious teachings and wisdom into clinical terminology and apply religious and spiritual concepts to mental health. When discussing PTSD, he might point to Psalm 22, in which King David, known for his exploits on the battlefield, asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?/Why are you so far from saving me,/so far from my cries of anguish?”
“Combat is spiritually wounding,” Tick said.
Tick has worked with chaplains for about five years in other capacities, often as a result of an invitation from a particular base, such as Fort Hood in Texas, where he conducted a healing retreat. The Fort Hood chaplains nominated him to the Pentagon to run the workshops on PTSD as part of the yearly training, formally known as Chaplaincy Annual Sustainment Training.
The chaplains are overseen by Maj. Gen. Donald L. Rutherford, a Kinderhook native who was ordained by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany in 1981, served as an associate pastor at St. Gabriel’s in Schenectady and as Roman Catholic chaplain at Albany Medical Center.
Tick is also working with the Illinois National Guard to develop a new program to help soldiers transition back to civilian life, and hopefully reduce rates of PTSD.
“As terrible, difficult and challenging as it is being in a war zone, the most difficult part is returning home,” he said. “Soldiers know how to behave in a war zone, but how to return to society effectively is eluding everyone.”
Chaplain Lt. Chris Antal deployed for Afghanistan on Friday. A Dutchess County resident, he met Tick about five years ago, when Tick was giving a talk at SUNY New Paltz.
“I had read his book, and I felt that he was someone I could learn from,” said Antal, who was ordained at the First Unitarian-Universalist Society of Albany. Tick’s emphasis on the role spirituality and community play in healing soldiers helps guide his work, Antal said.
Given the challenges troops face during their deployment and when they return home, “You could argue that chaplains are more relevant today than they’ve ever been,” he said.
Tick said chaplains have not been trained in what he calls “warrior spirituality,” so he tries to teach them about rituals that can help ease the symptoms of PTSD. Traditional societies, he said, conducted purification ceremonies for returning soldiers to cleanse them of their war energy, rather than rushing them back to their communities.
Today, such ceremonies might take the form of confession: talking in-depth about actions on the battlefield and asking for forgiveness for behavior they feel guilty about, such as killing. He said he encourages chaplains to talk about despair with troops, rather than using more clinical words such as depression and anxiety.
“PTSD isn’t a brain disorder,” Tick said. “This is your heart and soul trying to scream your anguish.”
Tick said that many soldiers are in anguish and pointed to the rising suicide rate among troops. According to figures released last week by the Pentagon, July was the worst month on record since the Army began keeping track, with 38 soldiers taking their own lives.
So far in 2012, the number of suicides among active-duty military personnel in all branches is up 22 percent compared with the same time last year. Right now, suicide surpasses combat deaths among troops.
Tick said he has great respect for the chaplains.
“These are people who care, who are trying to bring religious and spiritual comfort, healing and purpose to our troops,” he said.
Chaplains must be ordained in their faith tradition and undergo military chaplaincy training. Full-time chaplains serve in the active Army, with an initial commitment of three years.
Tick said the chaplains became aware of him through his 2006 book “War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans From Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“They’re hungry for this information,” he said. “The chaplains know the Scripture, but they haven’t studied the Bible and other teachings for what they have to tell us about trauma.”
Chaplains often approach Tick after his workshops to talk privately, he said.
“Many chaplains are in grief themselves,” he said. Some chaplains question their mission and believe that the troops are being used to fight wars that are immoral.