The Minister Helping Soldiers Deal with Trauma
All photos by Gray Hutton


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The Minister Helping Soldiers Deal with Trauma

"If they've had to kill someone, they later often start doubting that their actions did anything to protect innocent people. I can't take that feeling away, but I can help them cope with it."

_This article originally appeared on [VICE Germany ]( Schmidt, 54, is a counsellor, preacher and shoulder for soldiers to cry on. As the military chaplain on the Julius Leber Barracks in Berlin, soldiers share with him what troubles them – from worries about their family at home, to the specific traumatic experiences they lived through on their tour. The troops on his base know they can call on Schmidt at any time.


Mental health is a critical issue in the military. In 2016, 557 German servicemen and women were treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a spokesperson for the German Army told me. In the UK, veterans suffering from mental health issues after their deployment can be eligible for compensation, and last year the number of payouts in that programme was the highest in its 11-year existence. It increased from 121 payouts in 2010 to 580 in 2016. It's clear that soldiers' mental health should be taken seriously while they're still on active duty, not just after they've left the military.

Schmidt started as military chaplain just after 9/11, and has so far been on three tours in Afghanistan. I stopped by his chapel on the base to learn more about his work, and about the tools he uses to help soldiers deal with depression, guilt and their fear of death.

VICE: When do servicemen and women need your help most?
Peter Schmidt: Usually when they're about to face life-or-death situations. For example, in Afghanistan, soldiers often travel from base to base by helicopter. Those flights are incredibly dangerous, because the Taliban regularly shoot at choppers. When they board the helicopter, they know there's a chance they won't survive. I've often had people come to me to share their fears before going on one of those flights.

Do soldiers talk to you about the fact their actions could lead to people dying?
Yes, they're responsible for the safety of others, and that weighs heavily on them. For example, an officer who has to lead a convoy of cars through a dangerous area is responsible for the lives of the people in the 15 vehicles behind him or her. That takes a lot of courage and focus. However dangerous the situation might be, they have to remain professional and in control.


The chapel in the Julius Leber Barracks in Berlin.

How do they express their worries to you?
Some cry, some need to talk. A few just want to sit and listen to my sermon, hoping I'll say something that helps them deal with their situation.

Are your services only for Christians?
No, everyone is welcome. Our congregation is made up of people from all faiths, and even people without any specific faith affiliation.

Why do they talk to you instead of to a medical professional?
If a soldier has mental health issues, they're treated by medical army personnel – it'll be documented in reports. If they're diagnosed with severe depression, that would influence their work and could ruin their career. As a chaplain, I am sworn to secrecy and operate outside of the military command structure. For many, it's a smaller step to talk to me first.

Do many of them talk to you about feeling guilty?
Sure, and it's natural for them to feel some guilt – especially if they've killed someone in battle, for example. When something like that happens, soldiers later often start doubting that their actions did anything to protect innocent people. I can't take that feeling away, but I can help them cope with it. I try to analyse those feelings of guilt and help them realise they're not alone by putting them in touch with others who've gone through the same and learned to live with it.

Has someone ever told you something so bad you had to report it to the army?
No, if a person confides in me, I would never share what I'm told – unless he or she explicitly asks me to.


Peter (right) in Afghanistan, after speaking to Mongolian soldiers. Photo courtesy of Peter Schmidt

How do soldiers deal with being away from home for such a long time?
It's not easy. I once had to counsel someone who, three months into his deployment, found out that his wife had had a miscarriage. He was 3,000 miles from home and couldn't be with her. We talked a lot about grief and hope. In some cases, when there's a sudden emergency, they can get two weeks leave to go home. The military command know now that an emotionally distracted soldier is no good to them, but that realisation is quite new.

The Bible says "thou shalt not kill". How can you believe that while working in the military?
When you're in the military, you weigh your faith against the realities of life. Jesus says that when someone strikes you, you should turn the other cheek. But in the real world, the challenge is more difficult – should we stand by when we know that innocent people are being killed? It's a fundamental question, and I think it's right to step in on the side of victims. Not everyone in the Church agrees with me – there are people who think there shouldn't be pastoral care in the military. But I believe that we have an obligation to protect vulnerable people, and that's the purpose of the army.

Is there such a thing as a just war?
No, war is always terrible. Everyone who has experienced war knows that it should be the last resort.

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Does seeing all this suffering ever make you doubt God and your faith?
I doubt God all the time – I don't always understand His actions. There was this one evening in particular that shook me deeply. I was watching television with my son, when I was suddenly called away – I had to tell one soldier's family that their son had died. God gives me courage, but He also tests me.

When were you last in Afghanistan?
I was there in April and May. Shortly before I arrived, the Taliban had attacked a support base near the provincial capital of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed 140 Afghan soldiers, not too far from the German camp. When I got to our base, everyone was still in shock.

When you're in a war zone, can you defend yourself?
No, I'm a civilian. When I'm on a tour, I have a someone by my side to protect me if we come under fire.

Which kind of people in the military are you most impressed by?
There are officers who are trained to go and pick up the body parts of their dead colleagues, so they can be buried with dignity. I can't imagine what they've seen and how heavy that must weigh on them. To me, they're heroes.

Thanks, Peter.