I know a guy, who for the sake of this blog post, we will call B. Now, B started Operation Song, a non-profit based out of Nashville Tennessee. Operation Song pairs Songwriters (mainly the big time folks) with Veterans and Active Duty Service Members in an effort to help them tell their story through song. The reason that I know B is because he came to Fort Campbell when I was in the Wounded Warrior Transition Unit there and he was helping out.
B was busy helping folks out, doing both his thing and helping others do theirs. He was making connections and bringing people together. The way I saw it at the time was that B was helping me to help myself and then encouraging me to help others. That was in 2013. By 2016 when I needed something to do with my life, B was there to help me again. I had done a lot of work to begin dealing with and taking care of myself (managing PTSD, Moral Injury, and Chronic Pain without medication) and although things were better I still needed something. I needed purpose, something to do.
I drove to Nashville, met with B and sang a couple of the songs I had written. B listened while I sang and even sang some harmony on a chorus. I was timid about my abilities to write and sing. He encouraged me. They say that encouragement is giving a bit of your own courage to someone else; that is exactly what B did. B also gave me some pointers. He said, "That I should always introduce myself as a Retired Army Chaplain because it gave folks context." B also explained that if I wanted to drive around helping people out I needed to be able to explain what I was doing in about 30 seconds.
At first I thought that the Singer Songwriter stuff was just helping myself to heal and become whole again. Then I realized I was also helping others to heal and become whole. I began to see that I had a new purpose. I was encouraging others to tell their story. Through the songs I was lending them a bit of my courage and in turn they were beginning encourage other folks. When I made the pilgrimage to the Black Rifle Coffee Company (I wrote them a song and wanted to go play it for them) one of the guys there said something to the effect that I was, "Helping Veterans Help other Veterans."
After I left the Army I thought that my life was pretty much over. In April of 2013 Erskine Seminary accepted my work and told me that I was now allowed to use the title Doctor as in Doctor of Ministry. In May of 2013 I became the Retired Army Chaplain. By September of the same year I was so caught up in trying to eliminate pain through medication that I could no longer see the beauty of living. By 2016 I had completely stopped attempting to medicate pain (well, there was the one kidney stone incident).
With the obsession to no longer be in pain behind me, I needed something to do. Of course I didn't have as much time to do it as I once did. Embracing a life of pain can be complex and requires certain rituals (therapy, music, meditation, stretching, yoga, exercise, diet, and relationships). The one thing I needed to add to the list was purpose.
In the PTSD Group that I attend there is a constant reminder that as we ONCE had a mission that was given to us by the military; we NOW need a mission and the responsibility of defining and embracing that mission is now ours. That is a huge responsibility. As time has transpired I have begun to understand that my mission is two fold:
1) I am to BE Matthew Owen Williams who is a husband, as son, a brother, a friend, an Ordained Minister who has Privilege of Call in the UCC (United Church of Christ), a Mason, a Retired Army Chaplain, a Singer Songwriter, and the caretaker of two fine Schnauzers.
2) I have the opportunity to offer hope and encouragement to other Veterans that they in turn may encourage and help other Veterans.
It is a huge mission but it is also pretty simple. I know exactly what I need to do every day -I don't exactly know all the details but I know the general direction and gist of what I am supposed to be doing. And I must admit I do like journeying with people. I love the sacredness of our stories. I love hearing folks tell me their stories. Our stories are "Sacred Ground" (to borrow a phrase that God said to Moses).
As many of y'all know I don't have a lot of love for organized religion. For me its too many "Do's and Don'ts." But I am clearly in love with the people who make up many different organized religions. In fact I am a member of the UCC. I was attracted to that organization because of the way they welcomed people in all walks of life. In the UCC I found a group of folks who saw Christ as being on both sides of every line that humans draw in the sand (you know the phrase "I draw a line at...").
I was interview for an article in the Washington Post that was published Memorial Day 2016. The article was titled "What happens when the military chaplain is shaken by war." In the interview I told the reporter that I was no longer associated with any religious organization. I didn't feel like anyone cared and certainly no one in the UCC or any other organization had dropped by to check on me during my stint with attempting to medicate pain out of my life. Well, the Central Atlantic Conference Minister at the time, the late John Deckenbeck read the article and informed me that I was still part of the UCC. He made it clear that I still had a place. I still belonged.
The fact is that before I was a Chaplain, I was a Chaplains Assistant. I began my military career at Ft Benning -Home of the Infantry. It was there I learned to "Never Let Em See You Suffer." One of the reasons that no one knew I was in pain and on the horrible journey of using too much medication was because I didn't tell anyone. Although I had PTSD and Moral Injury and Chronic Pain, I was still responsible for my life. It only took a couple of months for me to realize that the medication regime wasn't working. But I still didn't do anything about it. By the time I did do something I knew, I was lucky to be alive. I also knew that there were other Veterans going through the same stuff that I had been going through. Thinking that I was alone was ignorant.
John Deckenbeck informing me that I still belonged was a great lesson. He empowered me to realize that if I were willing to look around and share what was going on with me, then there were others who still wanted to be part of my story. There were others who wanted to journey with me. I was not alone. I am not alone.
They say that PTSD is the condition of "withdrawal and isolation." As I search for a place, our place, a place to belong. I am aware that I love people. I love journeying with people. I love singing songs. I love being a part. I love offering Hope and giving a bit of my courage away.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this post,