"PTSD," said Roger Bouma, "is a little like the national debt. Everyone realizes that it's a problem, but nobody knows what to do about it." He was standing in front of a room of 80 people at Hillside Community Church, microphone in his right hand, his left hand by his heart, near his miniature ribbons, a small set of the medals he was awarded during his 26-year career as a military chaplain. “Well, tonight we're going to do something.”
That something was the first-ever "Veteran Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Symposium and Dinner," held just a week before Veterans Day in the U.S. and organized by Bouma, a member at Hillside who suffers from PTSD, with the assistance of several church staff. Ron Kool, the church's lead pastor; Michelle Kooi, an administrative assistant and Army Reservist; and Daniel Bud, pastor of outreach and pastoral care and a veteran of his native Romania's military, each contributed. Hillside is a Christian Reformed congregation in Cutlerville, Mich.
The event had its genesis in a conversation between Kool and Bouma about Hillside perhaps doing a Veterans' Day dinner in 2019. Bouma wondered if the church could do more. Eventually that led to hosting an expert speaker on PTSD and a panel discussion, moderated by Bouma, featuring four local veterans.
Bouma retired two years ago and found the transition challenging. After being diagnosed with PTSD, he began therapy and found a Veterans Affairs support group.
“I developed a kinship with these vets,” he said, “closer than any I have had in church groups. So tonight was about bringing together those two groups of people who have been such an important part of my life."
The church, Bouma added, has done little ministry with vets suffering from PTSD, not because the church isn’t willing to help, but because it's not sure how to do it. The event at Hillside, he hoped, would be a first step to more involvement.
"The church can and should be a bigger part of the solution in helping veterans who need help," he said.
Kool agrees. He noted the Nov. 5 crowd was split about half between church members (many of whom were either veterans or family members of veterans) and local veterans, PTSD survivors, and others who had heard about the event via Facebook pages, flyers and other networks in West Michigan.
"We have several members of our congregation who have PTSD," he said, "so we saw this as a way to support those members but also to provide support for people who might not be members of our church but could use this night of support. It just struck a chord that this might be a way to help people deal with a really difficult thing."
Sarah Mallis, a clinical psychologist at the Grand Rapids VA Outpatient Clinic, has worked with veterans with PTSD for almost seven years and gave attendees a short but sobering overview of PTSD, its symptoms, and its devastating impact.
"My goal tonight," she said, "is to tell you a little about PTSD. My hope is you'll also maybe pass on the word to people who maybe don't know about PTSD.
Mallis said PTSD has been around ever since there have been wars. In the past it was called things like shell shock and battle fatigue. But in the 1970s, PTSD was coined, and it has been the preferred term ever since, though the definition, she said, has been refined.
What hasn't changed is the impact. About 20 veterans per day in the U.S., she said, die by suicide. And most of those veterans were not in treatment.
For the four panelists—Jerry McGraw, Bob Huizenga, Ron Stuursma, and Eric Winters—the statistics around PTSD are not a surprise. All four served, three in Vietnam and one in the Gulf War, and all four shared hard stories with the audience about combat, about trauma, about coming home from war and about what got them through the tough times, including treatment.
Said McGraw: "I was close to the 20th person a few of those days."
Treatment at the VA, and lots of conversations with people who had experienced what he had, helped him survive, a sentiment the other panelists echoed.
Huizenga, a member at Hillside, teared up as he talked about losing a fellow soldier and friend in Vietnam and then gaining a friend in the U.S. who had been a college student and demonstrated against the war. Even now, he said, he sometimes has a hard time believing that one of his best friends protested the war he fought in. He added an important caveat though, one that summed up much of the evening's prevailing sentiment.
"He demonstrated against the war," Huizenga said, "but he welcomed home the warrior."