An ordained Baptist chaplain and army captain, Roger Benimoff spent two tours of duty in Iraq and months between deployments counseling soldiers in the U.S. During his career, he provided spiritual guidance to American soldiers through crises of faith, bereavement, and trauma until he himself broke down. While training and working as a chaplain at Walter Reed during the height of its crisis, Benimoff was diagnosed with chronic PTSD and spent months of treatment at some of the facilities where he trained as a caretaker. NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant has tracked Benimoff's experiences over the years, starting with his time at Walter Reed, and recently in a book about his experiences, Faith Under Fire. Benimoff retired from the army earlier this year. He spoke with Conant from Dallas, where he is a hospital chaplain, about what might have happened in Fort Hood, how the military families will cope with tragedy on the homefront, and why the army pushed him so far he had to leave.
Is "contact" or "secondary" PTSD a genuine problem?
Oh yes, definitely. I didn't have much time to counsel before I was deployed—I had only three weeks active duty before going over—but I would debrief my soldiers in Iraq all the time about events I was not present at. I remember when Eagle Troop had lost a soldier to a sniper and I did the CISD [Critical Incident Stress Debriefing]. I still have those images in my head. Or when one of Fox Troop's tanks went over a land mine. The soldiers told me about how the IED blew through their tank, how the driver's body was completely destroyed, how it was like spaghetti, and they were desperately trying to pull him out of the driver's seat while their command told them to leave the scene. They didn't leave him behind. But the tension of that, and their descriptions of that moment stay with me. When Eagle Troop lost a sergeant to an RPG, they told me about running into the hospital, seeing Iraq soldiers vomiting on the stairs after what they had just seen—walls covered in blood, brain matter on the floor. These images don't go away and I wasn't even there that day.
Besides the images, what does it feel like when you remember what the soldiers told you about, and how long did the feelings last?
Scared. It was haunting. People I cared about were suffering, which causes stress, but then you also get scared and depressed yourself. You are constantly having to respond and help even when you are feeling helpless. I remember just an overwhelming sense of all my feelings colliding at once, of not being able to compartmentalize. And when you are surrounded by tanks and equipment, whether in Iraq or at a base at home, it's even harder to compartmentalize.
Were you diagnosed with secondary PTSD as well as chronic PTSD? How does something like Fort Hood affect you?
I know that my psychologist at Walter Reed talked to me about it, but I don't think it ever made it into the paperwork. But absolutely it was part of it. It's constantly being in that environment that is so hard. Even now, thinking about Fort Hood I'm depressed today. I can just picture people in the Readiness Center, because I've been in so many myself. I've led sessions. I know there was a chaplain there who must have responded to this. I'm 100 miles away from Fort Hood right now, but I'm depressed and worried. I feel the same way today as I did back in the desert. I heard a soldier's wife talking on the radio about how they were supposed to be safe at home. This is such a betrayal.
Is it harder for army families—already so strained—to bounce back from something like this?
Military families have more resources than other families in a tragedy. But at the same time they are back in the U.S., and this is not supposed to happen here. Even in Iraq you don't often have 12 soldiers killed at once and here it's happened on our own soil. I don't think the families can bounce back from this. This shatters the paradigm that—wow—my loved one is back and finally safe.
How do you feel now, as a chaplain at a hospital?
I'm still in the healing process. But I'm reframing my experience—it's not that God abandoned me but that God provided space for me. My family stayed with me, my mentors and friends, even when I was lashing out.
Is it hard for caretakers to get help for themselves?
Yes. I didn't want to be judged. When people tried to help me I would study how they would engage me—if I sensed any canned statements or if I felt they were uncomfortable with me I would back off and close up.
What do you think was in the shooter's mind at Fort Hood? Were you both at Walter Reed at the same time, since you both studied there?
I didn't know him, am not sure if we were at Walter Reed at the same time. But I know anyone there would have experienced a lot of secondary stress. After all, I became an inpatient soon after starting work at Walter Reed. But I can't imagine shooting anyone. I also don't know what role his religion played, if any.
Why did you leave the army?
I could not stay in the army any longer and do good. There was a part of me who hated all of humanity because I could not understand the atrocities that people would commit, the horrors that people are capable of. I hated humanity and I hated God and I hated myself. I was so burned out, so angry with God and with the army I knew I had to get away from that culture. I could not be an army chaplain any longer without doing harm to others. But I can't imagine how someone would shoot their own soldiers. When I say I would do harm I mean emotionally—I was closed off and cold. I could not give the spiritual and emotional care that soldiers needed.