Face of Defense: Chaplain Helps Others Fight Stress
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2009 Readers of Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” can put the book aside when they’ve had enough of their mind’s reaction of the brutal 1993 battle of Mogadishu, Somalia.
But Chaplain (Maj.) Jeff Struecker isn’t that lucky. The decorated Army Ranger was charged with leading the ground assault force on all the targets that the task force hit in Somalia.
“I had been shot at and seen many dead warriors [before Mogadishu],” Struecker said. “I never experienced anything like the violence and the overwhelming sense of desperation like I experienced in Somalia. After losing one of my men and having many others wounded around me, I found a great sense of peace and courage through my faith.”
Struecker, who also deployed to Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East in 1991, went back and forth into Mogadishu three times during the main firefight.
His experience in the Somalian capital was a turning point for the soldier who’s currently deployed to Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regimental Special Troops Battalion.
“My wife, Dawn, and I had a great relationship before Somalia, but after the operation we both understood just how fragile human life is and how valuable our relationship is,” he said. “Somalia helped me put my priorities in order.”
It also led him to consider pursuing a different aspect of his military career.
“After the big firefight was over, I had many men that I work with asking me questions about matters of faith and how to deal with the trauma of an event like this,” Struecker said. “It was this experience -- talking with my friends about combat stress and faith in Jesus Christ after the big firefight -- that caused me to start thinking about becoming an Army chaplain.”
Since 2001, every time Struecker has deployed, it’s been as a chaplain, drawing on the combat experiences he’s had during his 22-year military career to help servicemembers dealing with the traumatic stress they may be feeling.
“I talk to them about what has helped me and others in similar situations like theirs,” he said. “I [also] work diligently to stay abreast of resources for warriors who are struggling with the weight of their profession.”
Those resources are much more plentiful than they were in the days surrounding Mogadishu, Struecker said.
“The task force had a unit psychologist and a chaplain available to answer questions and work with guys, but most of them were overloaded with the amount of people coming to see them,” he said. “The U.S. military, and specifically the [Department of] Veterans Affairs, has done greater work in the past few years helping warriors deal with the stress of combat than I have ever seen in my life.”
Struecker is deployed to Afghanistan from Fort Benning, Ga. He and his wife, Dawn, are both from Fort Dodge, Iowa, and have five children -- six, if you count the family’s black Labrador retriever.
“[He] acts like one of our children most of the time,” Struecker said.
Struecker, who enjoys reading and running in his off-duty hours, said he feels strongly about helping other servicemembers deal with the traumatic stress they may feel after combat.
“It is an enormous burden to carry for those warriors that have been directly affected by the stress of severe combat,” Struecker said. “Our nation owes all our warriors a debt of gratitude. We especially need to honor these courageous men and women for their service to our country and for the sacrifices that their families have made for our freedoms.”
Struecker recently received the “Unsung Hero” award for using his experiences to help others dealing with the effects of traumatic stress. The award was presented at the Country United Gala here, the final piece of a two-day event that included the Partnership for Military Medicine Symposium.
The symposium highlighted discoveries in military medicine and fostered collaborations among military and civilian partners to further advance research and clinical care. The Country United Gala recognized the efforts of medical researchers, clinicians, and educators, as well as friends of military medicine.
The Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine joined with the Tug McGraw Foundation to present the symposium and gala.
The Tug McGraw Foundation was established in 2003 to enhance the quality of life of children and adults with brain tumors, and in 2009 expanded programs to include post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.