American military men and women took part in a transformative, three-day retreat for post-abortion healing and healing from miscarriage late last month at the hilltop Religious Retreat Center in Schoenstatt, Germany.
Organized by the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and the post-abortive healing ministry Rachel’s Vineyard, the Aug. 24-26 retreat was the first of its kind for the military. It provided group discussions, private counseling and prayer as ways of coming to terms with complex and sometimes repressed emotions of anger, shame and guilt in a confidential setting.
The retreat was conducted by Bishop Richard Spencer, the Military Archdiocese’s episcopal vicar for Europe and Asia; U.S. Army chaplain Father Matthew Pawlikowski; and Julie Enriquez of Rachel’s Vineyard.
The format, developed by the Pennsylvania-based support group, is designed to address issues that commonly afflict abortion survivors.
Enriquez believes God is directing those who work in post-abortion ministry to serve the military population more, as there is a great need for healing there. The military lifestyle sometimes contributes to a woman or couple putting additional pressure on herself or themselves to abort a child, she said.
For example, a female soldier might feel pregnancy will cause her to lose her competitive “edge” in her career, and, consequently, she might pressure herself to believe abortion is the best answer. Or a couple might want to abort their child because the husband is about to deploy.
“I have met women who have been in both of these situations and chose to abort,” said Enrique. “They both had a great regret afterwards, and their marriages almost did not survive. For one in particular, the post-traumatic stress she encountered after her abortion ended her promising military career.”
According to Enrique, post-abortion symptoms are a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), called Post-Abortion Stress (PAS). PTSD is a common diagnosis among soldiers who have been to the war zone. Some symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, regret, hypersensitivity, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. The same symptoms may occur with a woman who has had an abortion, and sometimes not show up until 10 or 20 years later.
“What’s really difficult is when a soldier who is suffering from PTSD returns from a war zone to a wife who is suffering her own version of PTSD due to abortion,” Enrique said. “The results could be catastrophic for the marriage.”
One Woman’s Story
A woman who attended the retreat said, “I had developed a shame I did not know how to get rid of. I could not forgive myself. Rachel’s Vineyard came to me in the most gentle of ways purely because I was listening to the Holy Spirit within me.”
“Every turn the Spirit took in me I followed — until I was led to a deep black hole that was buried for years,” the woman continued. “When the forgotten hole was suddenly revealed … Rachel’s Vineyard helped me take away my shame.”
According to Mary Comm, author of Secret Sin: When God’s People Choose Abortion, one in three American women will have had at least one abortion by age 45. Bishop Spencer believes the number is higher for military members, based on his conversations and reconciliation moments with them.
“The reason I think it’s higher is because there are external pressures on military families that disrupt their stability,” he said. “A woman who is pregnant and is going to be deployed can be sent to different locations and jobs, but there are some women who would interpret that as being forced to choose. The military doesn’t force them, but the individual feels that pressure.”
Bishop Spencer also believes the rates of suicide in the military — over one per day — could be tied to post-abortion trauma.
“I have personally read some of the notes that have been left behind and the expressions of shame, guilt, grief, anger — all that surfaces quite frequently in those who have committed suicide and those contemplating suicide,” he said. “When a slice of our population is dealing with the pain of abortion, what’s available for them to confront those feelings? Rachel’s Vineyard is a wonderful opportunity to face and deal with those feelings. It’s therapy for the soul.”
Men Suffer Too
One serviceman said he was glad to be on duty in Europe at the time of the retreat.
“Rachel’s Vineyard offered me a safe, welcoming environment to share my grief. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the events in my life have been a constant source of concern for 39 years,” he said. “I’d like to reach out to all the men out there that have experienced a miscarriage or abortion. This is just the place for you to go to work through any issues you still carry with you as a burden.”
Added the serviceman, “This has had a boost to my current relationships — in grace. It is with great joy that I recommend we do all we can to continue this ministry to our mobile group in the U.S. military overseas. It will provide many graces now and in the years to come.”
Bishop Spencer learned of the need in the Church to do more for post-abortive men and women at the U.S. bishops’ annual fall conference last November, and he asked for resources to start serving the large American military population in Germany.
A second retreat is planned for Nov. 9 at the Schoenstatt Shrine, and it’s garnering interest from military personnel in Italy and England as well. Bishop Spencer is also arranging training sessions for military priests in Korea to begin the process of expanding the post-abortion healing retreats into Asia.
“God has really placed it on my heart, because I think it’s an area of great need for our military men and women. I see it further developing and continuing to generate a vibrant response,” the bishop said. “If we can be the hands and feet of Christ to the walking wounded and turn their focus toward healing, that truly is God’s greatest desire. God takes the initiative and just waits for our response.”
Register correspondent Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.