Chaplain (Capt.) Joel Panzer
Headquarters & Headquarters Battalion, 25th Infantry Division
One of the most difficult challenges facing our Army at war today is the substantial increase in Soldiers taking their own lives. With a record 160 confirmed suicides in 2009, we are on track to surpass that number this year.
Virtually every Soldier has been affected in some way by the tragic loss of a unit member to suicide.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston, who visited recently, and said he believes the number one cause of suicide in Army is untreated depression.
Rather than seeking help, a depressed Soldier is likely to believe he must be strong and drive on.
He may hide his symptoms and deny the existence of problems requiring professional help to remedy. Finally, as the soldier’s perspective on life continues to constrict more and more, and wishing to stop the seemingly endless pain he’s experiencing, the only solution he can see before him is to bring an end his life.
In July, I will be offering Mass on the island of Molokai for 20 pilgrims during a visit to the home of Damien de Veuster, the “leper priest” who died in 1889.
Over the past few months I read two biographies of St. Damien in preparation for preaching a sermon during this trip.
Of the many interesting facets of this complex man, it was surprising to learn that such a holy and selfless priest struggled at times with loneliness and despair, bordering perhaps on what we would term today “clinical depression.”
Damien was a Belgian missionary who spent 16 years ministering to the victims of leprosy banished to Molokai, making him then, and now, a beloved figure to the Hawaiian people.
In 1969, statutes of King Kamehameha I and Damien were unveiled in the rotunda of our nation’s Capitol, where they serve as the two distinguished historical representatives of the State of Hawaii. Pope Benedict XVI declared Damien a saint of the Catholic Church just last October.
Serving God far from home in the most difficult of missionary fields, each of Damien’s days was filled with experiences of human misery, hopelessness and, inevitably, death for every member of his suffering flock.
He fed and sheltered the lepers, dispensed medicines, bandaged their wounds, built their coffins and dug their graves.
After some 11 years of close daily contact, Damien contracted leprosy himself.
Damien admitted that he felt quite lonely at times ministering under such profoundly difficult conditions. Isolated from the normal support system of family, friends and fellow clergy members, how was he able to cope with such crosses? Damien found strength to get through dark times in two important ways.
Foremost was his faith in God, strengthened by his spiritual regimen of celebrating Mass, and meditating upon the Scriptures, and other daily devotionals. A belief in the great love and mercy of God provided the supernatural grace and inspiration Damien needed to keep before him the bigger picture of eternity, even in the midst of his daily burdens.
Damien’s profound love for God expressed itself naturally and secondarily in loving service to God’s people on Molokai.
After being diagnosed with leprosy, Damien did not give in to despair. Rather, he recommitted himself to accomplish as much good as possible for his people during the time he had left. He knew that the most effective way to improve the moral and spiritual condition of his flock was to provide for their basic needs.
Going beyond the daily spiritual and medical care he rendered to the lepers, Damien worked all the harder to construct churches, farms, schools, homes and a hospital. These basic institutions and communities not only made life more comfortable and secure for the people, but also rekindled their love for God and developed a sense of civic pride, morale and personal happiness. For Damien, such selfless service actually ended up invigorating, rather than draining, his pastoral energies.
Given the demands placed upon Soldiers and families in the current high deployment op tempo, stress at work and home may render any one of us susceptible to bouts of depression.
During those times when we are tempted to turn inward and withdraw from life and its problems, faith in God and service to neighbor may be sources of tremendous personal strength to help widen our perspective on life and enliven God’s grace within our souls.
If you or a neighbor needs help with depression, call Military One Source at 1-877-342-9647. Support is available 24/7, and is free and confidential.