A doctor has a theory on how soldiers can heal their souls.
By Christine Graf
When Dr. Roger Brooke graduated from high school in 1972, he did what all-white South African males were required to do. He joined the military, serving as a paratrooper in the elite 1 Paratrooper Battalion.
Today, Brooke is a professor of psychology and the founder and director of Military Psychological Services at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In the 1980s, he worked with South African national service members returning from the war, but it wasn’t until his son served several combat tours in Iraq that Brooke returned to working with the military. “I knew I needed to contribute to give my support to the war effort,” he says.
He has been working with veterans since 2008 and believes there is much we can learn about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from ancient warrior cultures. “PTSD has been described and named in all warrior cultures around the world and throughout history,” Brooke says. “It’s not a modern phenomenon.”
Ancient cultures recognized that becoming a warrior set a person on a different path that would last throughout their lifetime. They ritualized and honored their warriors and helped them carry the burden of their war experiences. “Our society has not done well at that,” says Brooke.
He references the Plains Indians who honored the souls of those killed on the battlefield—including their enemies—so as not to be haunted by them. Brooke has worked with many veterans whose dreams are haunted by the faces of the enemy dead.
Brooke notes it’s essential to resist dehumanizing the enemy. He’s convinced that telling veterans to “suck it up and deal with it” is ill-advised. Brooke believes such rhetoric can result in the trauma of war passing on to one’s family. “The task is to pass it on as a narrative that can be part of a family’s history,” he says.
Brooke’s own family honors the war experience of both his son and his father, a World War II combat veteran. Some of Brooke’s earliest memories are of placing his tiny fingers into a bullet-hole indentation on the side of his father’s head. His father spoke openly and honestly about his war experience and answered Brooke’s countless questions with age-appropriate answers. In 1986, Brooke traveled to Italy with his father to retrace his war journey. They visited the grave of his uncle, who was killed in Italy during the last week of the war. They traveled to the village square, where his father’s sergeant died in his arms. “We said a prayer right there, and my father felt an incredible sense of relief that the memory of his sergeant would be carried to the next generation,” says Brooke.
Interestingly enough, Brooke’s father embraced many elements of the combat trauma theory that Brooke would later develop. He shared his story, made peace with and honored the dead, and never avoided the painful truths of war. His father died in 2008, but his legacy lives on through his son, who is helping other veterans make peace with their warrior journeys.