The Word Among Us

Advent 2016 Issue

Beating Invisible Enemies

A combat veteran’s spiritual recovery after Iraq.

By: John Dale

Beating Invisible Enemies: A combat veteran’s spiritual recovery after Iraq. by John Dale

When I went to basic training in 2000, our instructors did a fantastic job of teaching us how to fight the enemies we could see. But facing invisible enemies—that’s something our training did not prepare us for.

This was hardly my concern, though, when I joined the military. Once 9/11 happened, I was eager to get in the fight. My chance finally came in 2004 when I got orders to go to Iraq. I was given a platoon of about twenty-five soldiers, and we started to train over the winter in upstate New York. It’s difficult to prepare for war, especially when you train for desert combat in the snow, we learned.

In January of 2005, we arrived at our base—named “Danger”—in Tikrit, Iraq. I realized this was the real deal. Men and women were counting on me to keep them alive and accomplish the mission. Being a soldier was not only my job, but it had become my identity. It was how I served my country, and it was a way I could make my family proud.

Fighting Invisible Enemies. Soon into the deployment, I was leading a convoy team to protect our commander and her staff as they traveled to other bases. It didn’t take long for us to encounter a host of invisible enemies.

There were mortars and rockets fired from the backs of disappearing pickup trucks. There were enemy fighters who didn’t wear uniforms and blended in with locals we might have otherwise trusted. The most destructive invisible enemy was the improvised explosive device, or IED. These could be buried in the middle of the road, placed in vehicles, or stuck in piles of trash and other normal parts of the landscape. Any day, the reality was that we could be seriously injured or killed.

Each of these invisible enemies wielded fear as its weapon of choice. The only way to survive was to stay focused and fight the fear. It took its toll on all of us. I tried to be stoic when the deployment ended, but my time in combat had left me with mental, physical, and spiritual injuries. About a year later, PTSD symptoms and chronic physical pain began to consume my life.

“What’s the Point?” I was hesitant to report my health issues because I feared it would be the start of a medical discharge and early retirement from the military. And that’s just what happened. Over the next few years, as I went through an arduous discharge process, it felt as if my identity was disappearing. Since I loved being a soldier and saw it as my lifelong career, I was crushed when I could no longer wear the uniform.

Even as I got married, took a government job, and appeared to be building a new life on the outside, on the inside I felt depressed, angry, and anxious. Although I didn’t know it, I was facing a different invisible enemy that used a familiar weapon: fear. I heard accusations in my head that made my depression worse. You’re nothing without the uniform. Your instinct to kill people coupled with physical pain makes you an angry, unpredictable monster. No one will accept you, so what’s the point of living?

These negative and suicidal thoughts began eating away at my psyche and affecting my marriage. I became emotionally detached from my wife, Sarah, and distanced myself from everyone, angry that I couldn’t be a soldier anymore. I had low patience and high reactivity, so I medicated myself with alcohol. My wife became afraid of me. I desperately wanted to be free from the chronic pain, from not knowing who I was, and from all the confusion in my head.

The Roots of the Problem. In the fall of 2014, my wife heard about an organization called REBOOT Combat Recovery. Its mission is to help military families heal from the “spiritual and moral wounds of war.” I was immediately excited. I had been to doctors and clinicians looking to my physical and mental well-being, but no one had ever presented a solution to my spiritual wounds, or “soul wounds.” I didn’t even realize I had any! REBOOT had materials for a “Combat Trauma Healing” course that was faith based. They offered to train Sarah and me to be course facilitators in our area. After going through the training in the spring of 2015, we invited a few friends—mostly veterans—to take part in the twelve-week course.

The group met in our living room. That first week, the course materials used an illustration of a tree, describing healthy and unhealthy “fruits.” It said that unhealthy fruits like anger or addiction may trace back to spiritual roots that have been damaged. The spiritual root of our identity, it said, needs to be as adopted sons and daughters of God. From week one, I knew that my “sonship roots” needed to be revitalized. I realized that in the military, my identity as a soldier had replaced my firm identity in Christ.

But the decay in my spiritual roots extended further to my roles as son and husband. The next week, we talked about the connection between trauma and sin. Trauma happens to us, but sin is done by us. In my own family, I could trace the cycle of trauma and sin back to a grandfather who served in World War II and, like me, dealt with pain afterward. His external and internal wounds affected his roles as husband and father, which affected my father. This was an “aha” moment; I wanted to end the cycle. It became a rally cry within me. “No! I will treat my family well—starting with my wife.” The Holy Spirit was already working to rebuild my roots.

Healing Invisible Wounds. Since that first healing course, I’ve facilitated two more, and each time my own healing goes a little deeper. It’s not over yet, but I’ve had breakthroughs. Today, I’m free from the guilt of having damaged my marriage. I don’t feel like a monster as frequently. The accusing voices are all but gone, by the grace of God. And I’ve helped others find practical and spiritual tools for healing their soul wounds. In fact, I have decided to quit my job and become one of the first paid full-time staff members for REBOOT.

Healing invisible wounds takes focus, just as fighting invisible enemies does. It also takes humility—something that can be tough for people in the military. Asking God to fix your heart means admitting you can’t fix it yourself. This form of surrender is okay, though, because it’s a way to freedom. By focusing on the spiritual roots of our lives, we can begin a deeper healing.

John Dale and his wife live in Washington DC. He has partnered with the Archdiocese of Washington to promote spiritual healing for military service members. To learn more, visit

Send Them Soul Support

It’s not always easy for our service members to find “soul” support when they return from combat. Through REBOOT Combat Recovery, John Dale found a spiritual support system and inner healing that only God could accomplish. And through our Partners Ministry, The Word Among Us brings regular spiritual nourishment to military service members like John, both at home and overseas.

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