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Iraq vet, former post-traumatic stress sufferer helps returning soldiers deal with ‘the screamers’

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Catholic Herald) - John Zemler had nightmares. For 23 years, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he awoke every night from the “screamers.”

Then one morning in January 2007, he realized, the screamers were gone.

“A lot of my anger and fear, God just took it away from me,” Zemler said. “He gave me my identity back.”

Zemler’s mission is to provide that same gift to other sufferers of PTSD.

As an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University, with his wife Wanda Zemler-Cizewski, an associate professor, Zemler is in a unique position to provide outreach to those with PTSD — as a veteran, theologian, and victim.

“I’m born into this job — theologian and as a veteran with PTSD,” Zemler said. “I’m called to it. You can get through this. A relationship with God will get you through it. It won’t defeat you.”

Desert Storm veteran

A former artillery captain in the army, Zemler served in Desert Storm from the United States, training soldiers. The PTSD stems from the special weapons work he did in the 1980s in Turkey. From teaching others to fight, he now educates others about the dangers of PTSD.

“If you were to think of PTSD as a personified someone, like a burglar or mugger, its goal would be to kill you, to kill the person who suffers from PTSD,” Zemler said.

There are two types of PTSD, Zemler said, immediate and delayed, which usually manifests in 10 years. While “you always see it in combat people,” a person does not have to be in combat to suffer from PTSD. Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event, including rape, a car accident or bankruptcy may be afflicted.

As part of his ministry Zemler works with Veterans for Peace, a non-profit humanitarian and educational organization dedicated to informing the public about the costs of war. Damage from the current war in Iraq will be felt for decades to come, Zemler said.

“If the war stops tomorrow, then we have 60 years of PTSD to worry about,” he said. “The damage will continue. The Army teaches you how to fight, but not how to turn it off.”

Ecumenical care

The care he provides for veterans is ecumenical - reaching out to those who suffer in whatever faith capacity they are comfortable, whether it be artwork, writing, or creating rituals for before and after deployment, which can help ease transition “so one day you’re not in Fallujah watching your buddies get blown up and the next at home watching ‘Friends.’“

Zemler is also working with Catholic parishes to help set up outreach to veterans. The power of prayer and ritual, which helped Zemler end his nightmares, is immeasurable.

“Biblical stories help a person,” Zemler said. “Whether you believe in demons or not, what people do under demonic possession is similar to what they do under PTSD. Christ liberates them. He brings out their identity. Prayer is extraordinary. The deeper one’s prayer life goes, the better they know themselves.”

Once that liberation occurs, a person can live again.

“You see the life,” Zemler said. “If a person with PTSD can be reignited to life, they are less likely to be killed by PTSD.”

John said he wouldn’t be here without Wanda, his wife of 15 years.

“I would’ve killed myself if it wasn’t for her,” Zemler said. “There are things I still can’t talk about out loud. I can’t even write them down.”

PTSD affects not only the sufferer, but those around them, as Wanda experienced with John, and her father, a prisoner of war in WWII.

Not afraid to sleep anymore

Wanda’s understanding of her husband’s struggles and how to help him has made all the difference, according to the couple.

“We need to care for one another, bear each other’s burdens,” Zemler-Cizewski said. “We must help women and men realize the person coming back (from war) is still their friend and lover but needs care.”

Faith, too, fits into that equation.

“No matter how disturbing a person’s past is, he is a member of the Body of Christ,” Zemler-Cizewski said. “As a Catholic, sacraments are very important to me. We (John and I) share the same Eucharist. There is a sense of belonging to the same thing. It’s a universal reality. We are not running our own show. It is Christ.”

Zemler bases his work on Christ. He finds his inspiration and calling to reach out to others from the Gospel of Mark 5: 1-20.

“Go and tell people what the good Lord has done for you,” Zemler said. “I take that very seriously. I’m not afraid to go to sleep anymore. I do as best I can to help heal people and help them stay alive.”


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Herald (,official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis.



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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Jim
    6 years ago

    I am a Vietnam combat veteran, and in 1999, my wife divorced me after 20 years of marriage becasue I was/am experiencing chronic depression and PTSD.

    In April 2008, she married another man although our church elders counseled her to remain single or be reconciled in our marriage.

    I have not been with any other women since I married my wife and am experiencing much heartache.

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