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Shad Meshad

  
Shad Meshad:

I had really lost my spirit, is what had happened. And war will do that. It will take your soul away.

Music
 

 
Dwight Nelson:

There is nothing like the carnage of war to make a man question his faith in God or to bring him to his knees. In the early 1960's, after leaving the seminary, Shad Meshad enrolled in the reserve officer training corp. As an advanced ROTC student, Shad underwent guerilla warfare training in preparation for Vietnam. His instructor, Green Beret Master Sergeant Donley, opened the first class with a film showing American soldiers destroying a Vietnamese village.

Shad Meshad:

And there were about 19 of us in the room. And by the time the film ended, with Donley and his unit cutting body parts off of the killed Vietnamese soldiers and making bracelets and chains and laughing and mocking in different ways that's hard to speak of, about three of us were still sitting in the room kind of traumatized by just watching the film. I never forgot that. At the end of the class he said this is what war is about. It's none of this other stuff. It's not John Wayne, it's not Audrey Murphy movies, this is what it's about. Search, destroy, intimidate - and kill.

Dwight Nelson:

After completing his training, Shad was assigned to the 95th IVAC hospital in Ikor at DaNang, Vietnam. His first night of treating casualties in the army hospital changed his life forever.

Shad Meshad:

That evening when I went on duty, within an hour and a half, we had MASH causalities come in. We had 35 soldiers from the 101st airborne, up about 3 clicks (or 3 or 4 miles above us). They were hit. And that night was probably the most horrific night ever in my young life because I was in charge of sorting, deciding, calling all the surgeons in, and swimming through blood, doing tracheotomies and holding on to soldiers as they were dying, screaming, yelling.

Dwight Nelson:

Finally, around 3 in the morning the work began to quiet down. Shad helped the surgeons stack up the dead like logs. As he worked, Shad checked each soldier's dog tags for identity. One of them struck home.

Shad Meshad:

And I pulled up this one kid and I pull out his dog tags and then I see the home address is Bestmore, Alabama, which is right next to Birmingham, where I lived. And it was really powerful. And I'm looking at this young Italian kid, built like another block. He was a grunt machine gunner. And he just looked so peaceful. And I remember that my father had just sent me a letter saying that any kid in our area that is killed will be buried free at my cemetery with a full military funeral. And I remember looking at him and I remember praying that this kid, that my dad would bury this kid. And about a month later, sure enough, my dad had sent me this tape. He didn't even know. He didn't notice until later that this kid, that I had actually processed at his very last. My father buried him, full military.

Dwight Nelson:

That night, Captain Shad Meshad began loosing his faith in God.

Shad Meshad:

What I experienced that night was the first time I realized that I didn't look up and I didn't pray and I felt angered because of the overwhelming horror of what I was watching and experiencing. I couldn't even imagine what these men were going through. And I just realized that maybe there isn't a God. God would not allow this. And you have to understand, I had 16 years of Catholic education including a year in the seminary. And was pretty frightened to lose it that quick. That even frightened me. And I kind of thought that I had memorized God. You know things culturally, whether it's prejudice or whatever, passed down. So I started intellectualizing and thinking this was all a hoax, you know, the God I studied, all loving and all caring and all protective - was not all loving, all caring, and all protective in this situation. There was literally…it was man's inhumanity to man and I was caught in the middle of it. And you know, if I cried out to God, you know, it just continued anyway. So I had started my journey away from God pretty much that night. And it got stronger as my year progressed. I don't remember really praying after that. I had a lot of kids praying as they were dying in my arms, over 300 of them in a year. And I felt so sad because I couldn't even pray with them, I just didn't, you know, it was like, the sooner you die, the better. You know, get out of this type of pain.

Dwight Nelson:

Shad was not only faced with the conflict of watching young American soldiers die, he also found it harder and harder to justify the killing of the Vietnamese people.

Shad Meshad:

There was a contradiction. You were living a contradiction. You know, on one hand, you are trying to kill a human being. You try to justify killing a village, killing kids, anything that was associated with the VC was to be annihilated because that was bad. You know, you start liking the Vietnamese people, we didn't know whether they were on the VC side or whatever. They really seemed very spiritual, very connected to the land. And yet we had this political agenda and when you are 18 or 19, you're not too sophisticated. You get it real quick that this is…this is insane. And your God is not responding. You know, you look up and look up and you pray and you pray and it's the same thing every day, you know. Constant, no light at the end of tunnel. No light at the end of the tunnel. You know, you've got your leader saying there's light at the end of the tunnel. Let's bomb, let's whatever. We killed almost 3 million Vietnamese and we lost the war. So, I mean…how many people have you got to kill to win?

Dwight Nelson:

The bitterness Shad Meshad felt over what was happening around him in Vietnam began to eat away at him. To survive he found ways to harden his emotions that may have protected him from some of the pain. But cost him a significant part of himself.

Shad Meshad:

I had really lost my spirit, is what had happened. And war will do that. It will take your soul away. And I didn't have time to rediscover. It was this way. I mean, not as dramatic as that night every day, but it was always a potential. And then flying into the field and the stories that I worked with throughout my year as both a medic and a psychiatric officer were just insane.

Dwight Nelson:

For most of 1970, Shad's life was the war in Vietnam. At Christmas he and thousands of other battle-hardened soldiers were sent back to the states. The journey home - and the long road back to God when we return.

Music

 

 

Dwight Nelson:

In 1970, Captain Shad Meshad was one of thousands of men trying to leave Vietnam and get home in time for Christmas. None of them was prepared for the wrenching change from foxhole to front porch.

Shad Meshad:

You know, I just…it was…it was scary…it was more scary for me to go home than it was going to Vietnam. I never thought that would be. So, I land into…we fly into Hong Kong and into Traverse Air Force base and there's 300 protesting Berkley students with Molotov cocktails trying to get to our buses as we're being bussed from there to Oakland Air Force base, throwing bombs and cursing: "baby killers," or whatever. That was my homecoming. And they followed us all from Traverse. And there's MP's and we get to Oakland and there's hundreds of them at the gate throwing, you know, these cocktails and stuff exploding and it was just…surreal. It just didn't make sense. And I just felt like it was like Dante's Inferno, that I had gone to hell, that there was no God. There was, you know, this satanic God.

Dwight Nelson:

Shocked by the reception he and his fellow Vietnam veterans received, Shad Meshad had a hard time adjusting from the war-torn world of Vietnam to the peaceful streets of his parent's middle America.

Shad Meshad:

The transition home is just…it's so rapid, so fast. You don't really come home. You just change places. I was in Vietnam in my mind in my parent's home. When I went to sleep, I was in Vietnam. When I woke up, I was nervous of where I was. I didn't know where I was…for weeks. And then, it's like…then there's a sadness because you want to wake up in Vietnam. And then you go, what am I crazy? And you get caught up in that conflict. You've lost so much - and you're just insignificant now.

Dwight Nelson:

Anger drove Shad with the energy of rocket fuel. The name of his unit in Vietnam was Paxmentis, which means "peace of mind." But how do you have peace of mind when you're consumed by anger? And what do you do with all that rage? He found out just how deep his capacity for anger went when a cousin he grew up with approached him at a Christmas dinner.

Shad Meshad:

And she came up to me and she said: "Where's Shad?" She looked at me, she said: "Wow, you look like a rat. How many gooks did you kill?" And I remember locking and loading with my eyes and thinking: 'If I had an M16, I'd pump the whole clip in her and feel good about it.' She represented everything…the indifference, the apathy, the opulence of America, had no idea, and was talking like a football game. How many did I take? How many points did I score?

Dwight Nelson:

No longer able to feel at home in Alabama, Shad eventually made his way to Los Angeles. There, he found combat veterans living on the streets unable to integrate back into the society they had gone to Vietnam to defend. Trained as a counselor, Shad decided the only way he could deal with his own anger was to do what he could to help other combat veterans like himself. He started rap groups or counseling groups for veterans who were angry at their country, at themselves, and at God. He helped a lot of men - but he couldn't help them all.

Shad Meshad:

I remember this Jewish kid who was a combat vet who was totally gone mentally and emotionally on a psych ward at the VA. And I went and saw him. And they asked me to go up and talk with him. And he had been so traumatized, they never really pulled him out of it. It wasn't that he was any great warrior, but just what he saw. And he would carry the…you know…the Old Testament around and read it or whatever. But that wasn't working. He couldn't find God, I remember, and he finally grabbed me and he asked me: "Have you found God?" And I remember saying: 'Yes." And I half lied. And I started talking that somehow, we'll find God, but you can't let go. You can't let go. The next day he tried to kill himself. They put him in a padded cell. We did everything to keep him from killing himself. And he just went to sleep, decided he just…you can't stop me. He went to sleep, died the next day. Autopsy, nothing, no cause. Just willed that. And that scared me. And I thought, you know, maybe that's what we're doing. We're willing our death because without God, it's death.

Dwight Nelson:

Shad continued to work with combat veterans. He found them living on the streets of Malibu or hidden in the canyons of the Hollywood hills. Everywhere he found them, he did his best to help. One night he was leading a group session when something unexpected happened.

Shad Meshad:

This was at the Legal Aid Society and we had a powerful group that night. And there was a lot of transformation going on and there was a lot of crying with some really heavy-duty warriors that had really seen a lot of combat, had killed, and after Vietnam, were really just mourning. And I remember someone just saying: "I just pray that God will forgive me. And I'll hope he'll let me…" whatever. And it was like, everybody was thinking that. Before you know it, everybody's hands were together. And everybody just got out…we were in a big circle and everybody just knelt down and this guy just started praying. And I just felt this jolt of energy come through and I just…it was…it was so odd. Because, here I am with these all hard core combat vets. None of them really, at least admitting they believed in God. And one guy sort of broke the ice. And said: "I just pray that if there is a God that he will forgive me for what I've done." And I looked around the room and you know, holding in, and I'm thinking these guys have killed more people than my family and relatives. And I'm sitting there, you know, this crazy psych officer sitting there with them and they are begging for forgiveness and I thought: "God, thank you for this miracle because I am just begging to get back into communication with you."

Dwight Nelson:

Shad did get back in communication with God. And he found a way to reconcile his painful knowledge of war with his new understanding of God by recognizing that it all comes down to choices.

Shad Meshad:

And I chose God. I try to choose him everyday. I forget. I get caught up. I get blindsided. I get hit in the face. I get mugged. I get raped. I get taken hostage many times. But I…I have a way to get out. I have a way to set myself free. And I really pity those that don't have God in their life because they don't really have a chance.

Dwight Nelson:

In 1985, Shad Meshad founded the National Veterans' Foundation. This foundation is one of the leading resources for veterans with trouble readjusting to civilian life, an organization he continues to run. His work with Vietnam vets has become legendary. He was one of the first to identify and label "post traumatic disorder". He'll be joining me here in the studio right after this.

Music

 

 

Dwight Nelson:

Shad Meshad is the president of the National Veteran's Foundation, which he founded in 1985. He's involved both nationally and internationally as a consultant and lecturer on Veteran readjustment problems and programs and was one of the first people to identify and label "post traumatic stress disorder." Shad Meshad, glad to have you on The Evidence.

Shad Meshad:

Thank you.

Dwight Nelson:

I want to roll the tape back to the God journey. Because you…Roman Catholic schools, studying for the priesthood originally, Vietnam, and then you lose it. What happened?

Shad Meshad:

Well, I think trauma. There weren't a lot of things I was prepared for, I don't think anybody could be prepared for. I think that's what the nation is suffering today after September 11. But there was just no way to prepare for it. And in a way it was the…probably the first thing you abandon is God in many of us.

Dwight Nelson:

Catastrophe leads to just this release….

Shad Meshad:

Well it's so horrific you just can't imagine, you look up, and it's like, you know your first thing and something happens. It's God. It's just a reaction. And then it's" Where are you? Where is God?" And you don't hear anything. But…the smashing and burning and all the horrific sounds of war, it's just…it's horrifying. And after a while, you get sort of numb. And you don't yell out "God!" anymore. All of a sudden you …you've actually made a choice and you don't know it. But you sort of look the other way. And it's pretty scary.

Dwight Nelson:

Now Shad, obviously you are enjoying a relationship with God now.

Shad Meshad:

Oh yes.

Dwight Nelson:

So how does that come back into the...the picture?

Shad Meshad:

Well God…God was with me. I just was looking the wrong way. But for three years in the streets of Los Angeles when I came out, I worked with the potential case load of 335,000 individuals if they decided to try and see me. That's how many Vietnam vets we had in LA county.

Dwight Nelson:

Are these all residential vets? Are they on the streets?

Shad Meshad:

Everywhere.

Dwight Nelson:

On the streets. They are just…

Shad Meshad:

On the streets

Dwight Nelson:

Homeless.

Shad Meshad:

Homeless. At that time most of them were just isolating. They were, you know, early 20's, isolating themselves from society. I worked in East LA, South Central, up in the canyons, up in the Malibu canyons, they were sort of hiding in what we call a numb state from PTSD, which is the first stage of trauma, just being numb, and you just sort of breathe and eat and do the basic things - but you're not really there.

Dwight Nelson:

Do you bring God into the treatment of this disorder?

Shad Meshad:

I bring God to everything. I don't say the word "God" but I bring it to everything. I don't talk about God. It's there and it eventually comes up by someone. You know obviously, for a lot of reasons, because a lot of people are non-believers or atheists and whatever. But throughout the…throughout the treatment we find that spirituality…a lot of times God is hidden under the word spirituality. You know, what is it all about? Because that's what it comes down. For survivors, particularly of catastrophic events, and that's what happened to me. I forgave myself for being so angry with God. I just needed to - and in trauma that's what happens. You need to strike back at something. It's just either natural or unnatural. Ground zero is unnatural.

Dwight Nelson:

Resolve the inner tension.

Shad Meshad:

That's unnatural.

Dwight Nelson:

Yeah.

Shad Meshad:

It's horrific. It's brutal. Who do we get angry at? I mean look at the anger that follows against other ethnic groups after the bombing. That's not God. That's not choosing God. That's the wrong choice.

Dwight Nelson:

So, ground zero has come. Rescue personnel. Post traumatic stress disorder is there?

Shad Meshad:

It's Vietnam all over again.

Dwight Nelson:

Really?

Shad Meshad:

It's horrible. It's horrifying. I mean…

Dwight Nelson:

Same story.

Shad Meshad:

Same story.

Dwight Nelson:

But you can help them.

Shad Meshad:

Oh, we can. Hopefully they will all go into treatment early and you know this is the big change. They have a great opportunity to transition out of this. It's going to be a long road.

Dwight Nelson:

Let me ask a final question. If the Shad Meshad of today could go back to that triage moment, the Shad Meshad, could take him by the hand and say, I want to talk you for a moment. What would you say?

Shad Meshad:

Very simply, I would say, each person that you held or helped or that held you during their last moments, you could just pray and hand them off to God, not turn away. I could have…I could have let go of them with God. I let go of them without God. I even get emotional now talking about it. I wish I had sent them off with God. We all wish we could have wisdom at those times. But you have to go through sometimes a lot to get that wisdom.

Dwight Nelson:

Shad Meshad thanks for being with us here. God bless you.

Shad Meshad:

Thank you very much.

Dwight Nelson:

To find out more about Shad Meshad's story be sure to sign on to our website. It's just one word: theevidence.org. We'll be back with some concluding thoughts right after this.

Music

 
 
Dwight Nelson:

During his seminary training, Shad Meshad absorbed the idea that God is directly in control of all events. That point of view stood up pretty well in the relative safety and prosperity of life in the United States. But it was shattered by the horrors of combat in Vietnamese villages. War became for him a special trial by fire. How could he believe in a God directly responsible for all that slaughter? Then later, Shad ran into God unexpectedly in a room filled with combat-hardened veterans looking for forgiveness, looking for connection. He met a God who drew near to him and whose love overwhelmed him. Shad's experience suggests something important. If we think we're surrounded by evidence that God doesn't exist, maybe it's the ideas we have about God that need to change? Maybe we're not looking at the real thing? For example, Shad had to discover that human freedom means freedom of choice. People have to choose between good and evil. And they create different worlds depending on their choice: environments that bloom with love or are scared by cruelty and horror. Shad also discovered that God is working to enable human beings to make the right choices and he can work dramatically to take us from one world to another. He gets involved. He gets his hands dirty. Burned out veterans locked in despair found their way to peace and meaning. The right picture, the real picture of God, can make all the difference in the world. That's what I think. I'm Dwight Nelson. Join us next time for more of The Evidence.

 







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