David, a Warrior after God’s Own Heart: Enemies and Family

Note: This is the third post in the series. Read the first two posts here.

US-Marines-Iraq_sm“I just want my old Tommy back.”

I often hear words similar to these in my work with family members of veterans. I lead the VA/Clergy Partnership as a VA chaplain in Arkansas. Whether it’s a spouse, a parent, or a grandparent, many family members are at the end of their rope, trying to help their struggling veteran come all the way home. Unfortunately, the “old Tommy” will never come back. For better or for worse, those that risk their lives to serve our country in foreign places are never the same again. During a deployment, the changes in warriors and the changes in their families are real, profound, and can be devastating. David experienced this same division in his own family.

Stained_glass_swords_mdWe have been focusing on Psalm 69 and King David as a warrior in trouble. Today’s devotion, based on verse 4, looks at David’s enemies and family. We’ll start with the first three verses of the psalm.

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.

As we have talked about in previous weeks, David’s life is a mess. The floodwaters are up to his neck and about to drown him. His feet are stuck. He is crying out to God, “Save Me!” He’s cried out so much that his throat is parched and sore and he’s tired of looking for God. David is exhausted and despairing in the face of God’s silence. Today, in verse 4, we see another struggle threatening to drown David.

Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
what I did not steal.

Pretty much all of us here have enemies, but I doubt any of us have the kind of enemies that David had. David had been facing enemies since he fought Goliath as a young man. His own mentor Saul repeatedly tried to kill him. The Philistines tried to kill him. In fact, while king, all the surrounding nations were trying to kill him and destroy Israel. Wherever David turned for much of his life, he was likely to see an enemy, some of them even among his own people. A life like this can create a lot of anxiety. He had to be on alert all the time.

David’s experience was much like that of people who have served in our military. All those who have fought in our wars have faced enemies who wanted to kill them. But in recent wars, knowing who and where your enemy is has become almost impossible. No longer do our warriors face enemies who all look the same, wear the same uniforms, and only fight on designated battlefields. The enemy can now be anywhere and look like anybody. They can be among civilians, among allies, even among children. In order to stay alive and keep their buddies alive, our service members have to constantly be alert to everything going on around them. They have to be hypervigilant in order to stay alive. Sadly, when they come home, this hypervigilance can become a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many veterans say that they have, for so long, been wired to stay alert that they just can’t “turn it off”. They may be home in a safer environment, but their minds and bodies aren’t fully home yet. This can make them overly protective, suspicious, or unable to be in public or in large crowds. It can also cause them to react strangely to sudden noises, situations, or smells, which can be difficult to understand or deal with—for the sufferers and for their families and friends. PTSD as well as any kind of anxiety can lead to isolation and depression. After battling his whole life, David may have experienced some of the same hypervigilant symptoms that veterans today experience.

What these veterans need most is understanding and the support of their families, which is where most of their support comes from. Unfortunately though, the experience of war takes its toll on families too. These loved ones endure their own set of challenges during deployment and they make some pretty big changes in their lives to cope. When a spouse or child or parent comes home from war, the families have to change again to create yet another “new normal.” Families can become weary from not understanding what’s going on with their returning service member. Veterans may not be able to communicate with their families. They may not even be able to feel the love and closeness that they once felt with them. David says in verse 8 of our psalm, “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.”

As a VA chaplain, I often hear family members say, “I feel like I don’t even know him anymore.” But remember, family members have changed too. They have new roles, new relationships, and new resources that they didn’t have before. This can also be very hard for returning veterans to adjust to and connect with.

King David has a particularly awful family problem. Remember all of the enemies that David mentioned in the psalm? In verse 4, he says, “many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me.” Later in David’s life, one of those enemies was his own son, Absalom. We know from 2 Samuel 15 that Absalom put together his own army, planning to dethrone and kill his father. There’s almost nothing worse than seeing someone in our own family as our enemy, or having them see us as their enemy. These are enemies that cannot just hurt our bodies, but can destroy our souls. Familial enemies are enemies that it hurts to hate, hurts to fight against. The pain of David’s broken family may be one of the main reasons for the floodwaters that David says are about to drown him in Psalm 69.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Oklahoma City to help build the city’s own community partnership to help veterans. A few Iraq war veterans were brought in to speak to a group of mostly local pastors. One of them had a great sense of humor about all he had been through, including the shrapnel still in his leg. He seemed to have kept his spirit. But when someone asked how his reintegration was going, the tone of his voice changed. He said that he had been really active in church, but no longer felt comfortable or worthy of church and had quit going. Then he talked about his family and their inability to understand and accept the new son that had come back to them after war. They refused to accept his invisible wounds. He said that, one day, while talking to them about his struggles, they said, “Come on, you just need to have more faith and pray. You are just using this military stuff as an excuse.” We could see the young man’s soul drop as he said, “I never spoke to them again. That was 3 years ago.”

Supporting families is supporting veterans. Supporting veterans is supporting families. For all of our talk about family values, we need to be sensitive and supportive to those who are struggling to stay together. Even a great sense of humor doesn’t mean the person doesn’t struggle. David knew when he was in trouble and reacted by crying out for help. Most of our veterans and their families won’t do the same. It is our responsibility to get to know them, to listen to them without trying to fix them, and to support them however they need help.

If you know of a veteran or family member who is struggling, please widen the net of support. There are many people close by who can help, like military family support services and veterans and families of previous wars who have learned how to survive. If you are a veteran or family member who needs help or wants to help others, you can email us at vaclergypartnership@gmail.com. You can also call me anytime at 501-944-9297. I hope and pray that you can re-connect to your family in a new way. I also hope that you, like King David, can call out and connect to a God who knows you, loves you, and is always with you, no matter what enemy you face. Amen.

Note: The fourth post in this series is available here.

Chaplain Steve Sullivan is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain and leads the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans. His interests are in classic rock and the intersection of spiritual and mental health, and pop culture and theology. Steve’s daughter Jenna is a CBF scholar at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Steve lives in Little Rock with his hyper lab, Sunny.

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  1. Barbara Lahndorff says

    My soon to be ex-husband is a Vietnam Vet with PTSD. Unfortunately, he embraces the disorder and uses it as an excuse for bad behavior and avoiding responsibility for his actions. After 23 years, he went on a week long rant ending with him picking a fight, which I participated in, not being one to tolerate being bullied. Three months after a four level spinal fusion surgery, he pushed me backwards over suitcases sitting on a cedar chest by the throat. I scratched and bit him. He called the police, had me arrested, got an EPO so I couldn’t go back to our home, then lied to a judge in an attempt to have me hospitalized involuntarily for a mental illness I do not have. His plan was to “lock my ass up, take everything, and not a thing I could do about it”. That was almost a year ago. Beware of those who like their disorder.