Seeking behavioral healthcare while serving

By CH (Maj.) Stephan BuchananOctober 4, 2021

CH Buchanan
CH (Maj.) Stephan Buchanan, a chaplain and the deputy chief of the Department of Ministry & Pastoral Care at Madigan Army Medical Center, speaks at a prayer breakfast on February 13, 2020. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Ryan Graham) VIEW ORIGINAL

***Content Warning*** This firsthand account includes graphic descriptions of battle scenes.

MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. – I did my officer basic course in the Reserves. So, when I came on active duty in 2008, I didn’t have to do that because it was already done. I came here to what was then Fort Lewis. I was here for 28 days before I deployed to Afghanistan for 15 months. That was my introduction to the Army.

I was a chaplain with an explosive ordnance disposal unit, so, the bomb guys who are working on all the IEDs. They walk on them, they disarm them, whenever there’s an explosion, they go out there and render the scene safe, pick up body parts, put them together. Then, there’s lots of stories. As a chaplain, I’m taking care of them. There’s only one of me for the whole EOD outfit and they’re spread throughout the country so whenever something would happen, I would get on a plane and go to them and try to take care of them, mentally, emotionally, spiritually after doing something catastrophic like prying burnt, dead bodies from Humvees or picking up little girl body parts after an explosion. Also, taking care of them whenever our own people die.

For 15 months, doing that. I came home and I was only home for 10 months, and I was told we were going out the door again – same unit – but this time it was Iraq. We were there for 11 months. So, 36 months, deployed for 26 in combat; that was my first three years in the Army. When I came back, first, I was supposed to go to a Special Forces unit. But, somebody was looking out for me, and we were sent to Hawaii for three years to a non-deployable unit.

I was very privileged where I was. We had a psychologist on staff, so it was great. The wait time was pretty short, and I saw him. I had to seek help, but, at first, probably like most people, I was in denial. What made me finally go was my wife was telling me, “You know you’re screaming at night.” I said, “No, I’m not, I don’t hear it.” One day, I woke myself up screaming. Well, I guess I can’t deny it now. Then, I was at a military chapel on a Wednesday night preparing for a class. The guy I was working with plugged in the microphone to the amp and I saw him doing it and I already knew the sound it was going to make. It didn’t matter. That happened and I hit the floor, a chair flew against the wall, my heart started racing. Then I stood up and everyone was staring at me. It took a long time for my heart to calm down. I said, “I can’t be here today, I’m so sorry.” Those two things happened really close in time, so I said, “OK, I’ll get some help.”

I saw a counselor for a little while there. Then, coming here, my first medical assignment, I got help again. This happened a long time ago, but my fear just kept on taking the front. So, I was neglecting myself. Being here, the OP tempo was much slower. I can do my job well and take time to utilize our resources. We have lots of resources. Behavioral Health, that’s been good.

As a chaplain, if I was counseling myself, I know all the right answers, but that doesn’t help me.

When someone you care about says, “Wow, you need help. Something’s not right, you need help,” that’s an indicator. Or, when things that are normal to you are no longer normal or acceptable. Easy example is the 4th of July. I already know it’s going to happen. It affects me, but not as much as it did before, in between deployments. I got back in June. July 4th, I’m with my wife, and we’re with friends and I’m holding her hand. In my mind, I’m just holding her hand. But, I was crushing her hand. There was that and she also noticed that I sometimes had a thousand mile stare.

I’m very good in trauma, like in the ER, I just do whatever I need to do. I’m just wired that way. But, coming home to an environment that was normal was hard. It’s a combination of post-traumatic stress, accumulation over time, being hyper-vigilant, to being in a place where you have all these options and no one is going to shoot at you.

I got help when I needed it and that was so important for me, and for my family.

Madigan’s Social Media Links:

Madigan’s Facebook:

Madigan’s Twitter:

Madigan’s Instagram:

Madigan’s LinkedIn:

Madigan’s YouTube: