Army Chaplain Tests Limits of His Faith

Pastor Struggles With Stress Disorder

Posted March 16, 2009 at 4:15pm

The past few years have offered remarkable accounts written by journalists and military scholars chronicling key events of the Iraq War. The most memorable include the fall of Baghdad, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the reliance on contractors on the battlefield, the killing of four such contractors in Fallujah and Gen. David Petraeus’ command of the “surge— strategy.

These stories have helped us understand the rise, fall and, some say, rise again of America’s tumultuous fight in that country. However, one of the most intriguing and underreported stories to come out of Iraq is the struggle that young veterans have with post-traumatic stress disorder.

There have been a few reports of soldiers who have returned to their hometowns in rural America after fighting in Iraq, only to fall through the cracks and, in some cases, end their lives. Just this year, the Army released statistics that showed the number of suicides from Iraq War veterans had increased from previous years — with PTSD being a leading cause. The Obama administration has pledged to take PTSD seriously, assuring that its Department of Veterans Affairs would have more funding to treat soldiers afflicted with it.

In “Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir,— Roger Benimoff takes on PTSD as a counselor for those coping with it and as one who was treated for it himself.

Benimoff was a chaplain in the Army from 2002 to 2008. He spent two tours in Iraq and was a chaplain-in-residence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

He offers a window into to the horrors that he witnessed in Iraq, and through 256 pages, Benimoff takes us to Walter Reed, where his own post-war drama unfolded.

He writes: “Even with the therapy my PTSD severity level was rated seven out of ten, still extremely high especially after weeks of treatment. I was making some headway; I started to understand that my trigger points centered around feeling unheard. … Many days I wished I could stay there forever and dreaded the day when I’d have to check out.—

Benimoff aims to educate readers that war hurts the mind, body and spirit. And he pleads with his subjects in the book that with faith in God, PTSD is manageable, and maybe even curable.

Benimoff is now a chaplain at Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, and he lives in Texas with his wife and two children. His work, a collaboration with Newsweek reporter Eve Conant, whose story about the Army chaplain appeared in the magazine in 2007, prompted “Faith Under Fire.—

The book’s narrative suffers structurally. In as much as we hope to care for Benimoff and his efforts to assist those coping with PTSD, the book consists of too many eyewitness accounts, which then collide with his journal entries, basically complicating the reading. The book is a compilation of his diary, so there is no need to inject italicized diary entries, especially when they add very little to the point that Benimoff tries to make.

“Faith Under Fire— also seems to have been published too soon. Ten or perhaps 20 years from now, it would seem an ideal study for those looking to gain a fuller picture of various aspects of the Iraq War. But, with the war ongoing, Benimoff’s story is too inside-baseball for current audiences.

Benimoff and Conant leave the very good ideas until the very end (in the author’s notes). It is here that Benimoff surrenders whatever insecurities that he has and welcomes readers into his psyche: “Now that I’ve passed through the lowest valleys of my life, I find that the beauty of faith is that throughout my crisis I still cried out to God. … My experience is unique in that it all happened so quickly and against a backdrop of extreme violence and constant loss.—

Despite some chapters that are full of meaningful interviews with young soldiers — for instance, there is a memorable scene where he coaches a soldier on his wedding day — the book is disappointing. It feels put together quickly.

The author also uses too many long dialogues and tedious or obvious contemplations about Christianity at the expense of sharing with us more of the effect of war. He treats religion as an obvious revelation, separate from the reality surrounding him. Only after contemplating suicide does he welcome religion back into is life, without much discussion explaining why. This book, in fact, is not written for a general audience, but for those who would agree that faith in God is all that is needed to move on after a war.

Instead of breaking down his doubts and injecting logical arguments for his reason to believe in a God — the bedrock of theology — Benimoff urges us to accept that his quest and his conclusion that with God, anything is possible, happened through faith alone. This contradicts his premise about faith, since through parts of the book, he implies that a greater force — destiny — took hold of his life.