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Resiliency After Trauma of War

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After he got back from the war, Mark Lauro couldn’t pick up his young son without thinking about that night in Iraq. He was an Army National Guard sergeant with a company deployed in 2007 to provide security for military supply convoys. Lauro was in an armored vehicle running reconnaissance a few kilometers ahead of the others, keeping an eye out for trouble and choosing the best route to follow. As he often did, Lauro led the group against traffic on a divided highway to lessen the chance of an IED attack, clearing oncoming civilian vehicles off the road until the convoy had passed.

Among the vehicles he encountered that night was an ambulance, which continued to advance slowly despite Lauro’s commands to stop. Intelligence reports had been warning against possible attacks from emergency vehicles filled with explosives, and Lauro began to run down the rules of engagement checklist: verbal commands, flashing lights, warning shots. The ambulance finally stopped, but a man climbed out and continued to approach on foot, carrying something in his arms. Lauro was preparing to exercise his final, lethal option when he saw that the man was weeping, carrying his badly wounded son, in a desperate search for help. Lauro waved the ambulance on its way and radioed back to the convoy for medical help. The boy died, Lauro later learned.

Months later Lauro returned home to his family in Virginia, but he continued to be troubled by the incident, especially by the way he’d nearly shot another man who was simply trying to save his son.

The Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program and the war that Mark Lauro helped fight in Iraq can both trace their origins to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. They were very different responses by very different institutions to unprecedented traumas in modern American history. More than a decade after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, public concern is growing about the psychological cost of those conflicts on American soldiers. In early 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. As a result, the STAR program has increasingly looked for ways to work with veterans still struggling on the home front.

One of those closely involved with the issue is Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, executive director of the Brookfield Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that promotes trauma-healing and peacebuilding. She was familiar with EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding by way of graduate classes she’d taken while pursuing a doctorate at Hartford Seminary. Seeking ways to prepare church congregations and veterans’ families to support soldiers after their return home, Prestwood-Taylor took the week-long STAR training at EMU and began to incorporate its methodology into her work.

The result: a program called the Journey Home From War, a specialized STAR workshop designed for veterans and people in their families, communities or congregations looking for ways to support them. Prestwood-Taylor led the first Journey Home from War workshop in 2009, and has since spun off a variety of similarly designed programs aimed at specific audiences like the clergy and women veterans.

More recently, the Brookfield Institute has also provided trauma-healing and resilience training to a group of United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts that were looking for ways to support returning veterans. The participating churches have since launched their own programs, including several support groups and a yoga class for veterans.

Not long after his return to Virginia, Lauro enrolled in the Adult Degree Completion Program at EMU to earn a degree in management and organizational development. Among his final assignments was a paper about his difficulty readjusting to life back home. The style of discipline Sergeant Lauro used for 20-year-old Army privates in Iraq didn’t translate well to a household with two young children. One night, driving to Washington D.C. for a getaway with his wife, a pair of approaching headlights on the interstate triggered a flashback to his reconnaissance patrols in Iraq.

The professor who read Lauro’s paper told him about the STAR program and connected him with STAR director Elaine Zook Barge, who was looking for ways to reach out to veterans. Barge invited Lauro to a STAR training, and in 2011, he went, intending to do nothing more than provide her with feedback from a veteran’s perspective. To his surprise, the experience became intensely personal. He talked about the night he met the ambulance, and in doing so, explored the grief and remorse he’d held ever since.

“I felt free of that burden I’d been carrying.” Lauro says STAR has brought considerable healing to his life, though he still deals occasionally with the effects of his experiences in combat.

In November 2012, Lauro returned to STAR as a speaker at a Journey Home From War workshop led by Prestwood-Taylor on EMU’s campus.

“What STAR offered that we didn’t receive from the military was an explanation of the trauma process. It helped me to understand the technical side of trauma, to understand its actual dynamics, and how these can affect the different parts of the brain,” says Lauro, who works in human resources for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “It wasn’t just theory and concepts. It was science.”

Prestwood-Taylor says STAR is unique in integrating a physiological understanding of trauma with a broader view of its impact on one’s spiritual and social health.

“When most programs look at post-traumatic stress disorder, they deal with body-brain dysfunction and try to help the veteran manage that,” says Prestwood-Taylor. “But there are other aspects of healing that are crucial to finding wholeness.”

She also notes that the majority of veterans who commit suicide today have been home for years (69 percent are over 50 years old, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs), meaning programs like Journey Home from War need to take a long view.

“The need for the community to reach out to veterans and provide support isn’t a short-term need,” Prestwood-Taylor says. “My hope is that there will be something sustainable for 10 years from now, 20 years from now, when it is needed just as much as it is today.”

Article originally published in Peacebuilder magazine, Spring/Summer 2013.

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