Will I Go to Heaven?

It’s a question many have asked when they’ve looked back on their lives and thought about things they’ve done. But for those who have participated in a war, the question takes on a special significance.

By Mary Tendall

 Man going to heaven

Will I go to Heaven?” is a common question from veterans who are well into treatment. The question emerges quietly, and with great heaviness. I am always saddened, knowing that most soldiers take great pride in their service, yet memories and feelings about their service can show up later in the form of sadness and regret. The question of Heaven isn’t really so much a question of religion as it is a realization of a changed identity and a retrospective perception of self after many years. (For some it is a fear based on religious teachings.)

Desensitization during war-time missions is essential to keep fellow soldiers safe, and to maintain clear focus. Unfor­tunately, there is no post-war training for those who have in some way experienced the deaths of soldiers or civilians during combat.

A warrior is trained to kill. The purpose is to defend and protect, based on the actions and missions ordered. The vocabu­lary used in training is aimed at desensitization, with phrases like “eliminate the target” and “complete the mission.” Desensitization during war-time missions is essential to keep fellow soldiers safe, and to maintain clear focus. Unfor­tunately, there is no post-war training for those who have in some way experienced the deaths of soldiers or civilians during combat.

A moral injury

John* often spoke of his unit with great pride. He was proud that he had never witnessed any “unnecessary killing,” and couldn’t understand why his thoughts and dreams were about “the ones who got past the wire.” He recalled recognizing one of their bodies in particular. It was someone he had thought was a friend during the day, working alongside him on occasion. (No, it wasn’t the barber.) John found that he could never process the anger and betrayal he felt as he real­ized his Vietnamese “friend” by day had tried to kill him and his buddies during the night. John further suffered from wondering if it was his bullet that did the killing, and later hoped that it was his bullet. His conflicting feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, and betrayal often flooded him with confused emotions that were a challenge to himself and also impacted those around him. Now, years later, John is just beginning to face what is currently being identified as a moral injury or a soul wound.

In the December 12, 2012, issue of Newsweek, Tony ­Dakoupil writes: “Soldiers are supposed to be tough, cool, and ethically confident. But what happens when they have seen and done things that haunt their consciences? New studies suggest that the pain of guilt may be the key factor in the rise of PTSD.”

The first objection to this line of thinking might bring up a defensive statement such as, “But it was either me or them, and I did what I was trained and ordered to do. (True.) Or “I don’t feel guilt or remorse for any of them who were killed. If innocent people died, they were either in the way or there was no way to know.”

Placed into impossible situations

Lamar reported that he was confronted with an impossible situa­tion when a young girl who looked like she might be carrying grenades approached him. His buddies behind him yelled at Lamar when they saw what she was carrying. His first thoughts were to save his men and himself. As she came closer, Lamar fired. It turned out that she was, in fact, carrying explosives. The girl was about the same age as his daughter. Lamar’s moral dilemma is one that no one should have to face, yet it is not uncommon for soldiers to have, or know of, many similar experiences. Lamar knew that he had followed correct military protocol. (Shooting first was not an issue in this case.) What surfaced later was Lamar’s constant rumination that he had killed a girl his daughter’s age. His rage at those who had assigned her a deadly mission was overshadowed by her death. In this case logic and moral injury become very separate. There is an ancient saying that refers to combat. “It is better to treat a stick like a snake than to treat a snake like a stick.” That is still true today.

No problem

Five years ago Donny’s wife told me that her husband had been sobbing in his sleep for several years. Each time she mentioned it to him, he said that he had no memory of a bad dream, and couldn’t think of anything that could have triggered it. She knew otherwise.

Donny had witnessed a village burning. It is unnecessary to describe what his experience was, but Donny later told me that it was that incident that was a turning point for him when, “I no longer knew who I was, but I did know that I could never be the same.” After six months of intense treatment, Donny began to see himself as a good man, and he now realizes that he had been fully unprepared to deal with many of his combat experiences upon his return home. And like most veterans, he wanted out of the service as soon as he arrived back home, and never disclosed his emotional state.

Anger, survivor guilt, numbness, or sorrow settle down in memories, only to erupt at unexpected times when triggered by a thought or other reminder.

In fact, like so many others, he thought, “I don’t have a problem – everyone else at home is screwed up!” (Sound familiar?) I am happy to report that I see Donny often in my small community, and his wife always offers me a subtle “thumbs up” to let me know that things are going well. A few months ago Donny told me that because of all his work to bring resolution to his adjustment challenges, he wanted to be available to the young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he has begun to hang out with them in the cafeteria of a nearby VA hospital.

The military leaves an important part of the journey undone

Most military PTSD facilities work to treat those who have been in a combat experience with an emphasis on the life-threatening environment and actions. Current military protocols for treatment are showing no better results than the results of the past. According to the previously mentioned Newsweek article, one in three soldiers has reported killing an enemy, one in five reported killing a civilian by mistake, two in three handle or uncover bodies, and the same ratio saw sick and wounded people they were unable to help – including women and children.

Nearly all combat soldiers I have worked with or interviewed have, in some way, had to deal with a fellow soldier killed – or have killed an enemy or a civilian, or have handled dead bodies. Whether killing an enemy or a civilian, or handling or witnessing the dead, a soldier remains intimately connected to a death experience. Anger, survivor guilt, numbness, or sorrow settle down in memories, only to erupt at unexpected times when triggered by a thought or other reminder.

So how does a person reconcile military duty with the civilian culture we know as home? What happens when we confuse pride with regret, desire to isolate with loneliness, and anger with sorrow? It’s clear to me that an important part of the warrior’s journey has been left undone. The results are the sufferings of the thousands and thousands of veterans who have yet to bring closure to their combat experiences. And it is a sense of loss and an examination of values that surface more often than fear when I listen to the veterans talk of their unresolved combat issues.

The emotional defenses needed during war likely cloud the ability to clearly cope with losses that frequently erupt following combat. However, in most indigenous cultures there are powerful ceremonies that help the returning warriors cleanse from their unresolved experiences. Community participation and witnessing often are key elements for reintegration and healing for the soldiers and the community. These ancient practices are based on the belief that a warrior’s journey is not complete until they have truly and completely returned home – mind, body, and spirit. We can only hope that future military treatment will offer as much attention to the return home as is currently invested in preparation for combat. It is not just the soldiers who are impacted, but our families and citizens as well, causing what could easily be defined as a national moral dilemma.

What about heaven?

A significant number of veterans have come to a place of peace when answering the question about heaven (or a person’s concept of some equivalent). They understand that combat situations called for actions and thoughts that do not define them (or their values) before or after their war-time experiences. So for those who wonder about going to  heaven, we can hope  that they will be able to understand that who they were during combat is not what should define them in civilian life – except for the values they choose to retain – qualities such as pride, courage, and forgiveness.


Some things to try

Seek spiritual guidance if you are part of a religious or spiritual group.

Find a trusted friend or partner, and talk about some of the points raised in this article.

A Soldier’s Heart retreat might help. Get the details at soldiersheart.net.

Find a spiritual outlet, whether it is going to church or spending time in a beautiful, natural setting.

Be of service to other veterans. By helping and understanding others you may find a way to understand and help yourself.

Recommended reading

War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, by Edward Tick. Available on Amazon.com and other outlets. Print and audio CD versions available.

*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.


Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at maryten@jps.net.