By Bruce Lacillade
Feb. 18, 2015, Beamsville, Ont. - On Sunday, Feb. 8, I attended the annual Four Chaplains Memorial Service at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. A similar service was also held at various military bases and VA hospitals across the country. The four chaplains were four United States Army chaplains who were assigned to accompany 902 soldiers to Greenland onboard the USAT Dorchester during the Second World War. Once a luxury ocean liner, the Dorchester had been converted to a troop transport ship.
At 12:55 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1943, while en route to Greenland, the Dorchester was attacked by a German U-boat. The Dorchester sank in less than 27 minutes, and took 673 souls with her to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
There is not enough room here to go into any detail on the heroic deeds of the four chaplains, but their actions that night helped to save the lives of 229 soldiers and made them an enduring example of extraordinary faith, courage and selflessness. In the end, after doing all they could to save others – including giving up their own life jackets – they were seen arms linked, praying together: a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Methodist minister and a Dutch Reformed minister; shipmates; brothers.
“Valour is a gift,” Carl Sandburg once said. “Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”
As a retired firefighter and a combat veteran, I feel qualified to say that first responders are so gifted and are made up of a strong faith, courage and selflessness. First responders rush in where others fear to tread. They have seen a lot – too much maybe – and many now suffer quietly from what they have experienced – from invisible wounds.
If you, as a first responder, want to become more resistant, you must be open to the fact that life takes you through significant changes, and it won’t always be a bed of roses. Some first responders may at times feel suicidal and even entertain suicidal actions. It’s important to develop methods of coping with and controlling these impulses. The first step is to find ways to relieve these feelings through less destructive methods.
In my last blog, I presented a list of eight things to do when disturbing memories or feelings try to take control of you: pause; sit quietly; focus on how your body feels; notice if you are holding your breath; notice any nervous activity you’re doing; notice your emotions and what thoughts are racing through you head; and take a few deep calming breaths.
You must not think of these invisible wounds or impulses as a failure of character or as a mental illness. As with warriors, these are honourable and inevitable wounds; they are proof of your humanity; they are a portal for transformation and a school for wisdom. I ask you then to consider the term post-traumatic growth. You can grow from these; you can discover their blessings and give them meaning.
Each time you confront despair you grow and become stronger. If you are willing to do the work, now is the time to make an initial commitment. By reading this blog you have shown that you are aware of a need for change. You may still have some resistance but at least you are open to ideas. You are a survivor, and we need survivors to offer testament against the horror and despair the world sometimes throws at us.
The journey through post-traumatic growth is a psychospiritual and a communal one that becomes your roadmap through life. With work and growth the symptoms will fade and will be replaced by wisdom; you will feel better, eventually.
First responders form an outer circle of protection for those in the communities they serve. When first responders are wounded, civilians, in turn, must provide outer circles of protection and caregiving for them; for you. Most people have nothing but good things to say about firefighters and other first responders. However, most people know only what they see in the movies or on TV; they mean well but often they don’t understand. Be patient with them, and help them understand.
Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts and feelings with someone you can trust. Your pain, your invisible wounds came because of your courage and selflessness. Your wounds are honourable and they can heal if you accept them and try to grow from them. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You are not alone.
Bruce Lacillade is retired from the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario, where he spent 10 years on the floor as a firefighter and the next 15 years as an inspector in fire prevention. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran and the chaplain for the American Legion in Ontario and the United Council of Veterans (Hamilton and area). Bruce helps first responders, military personnel, veterans, and their families deal with what he calls moral injuries, or internal conflicts. Contact Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org