Asking the hard questions

By Cassandra Morrison

Alumna Kelly Wadsworth, Ph.D., had to find her own way after coming home from war. Now she helps others find their way back too.

Coming home is supposed to be a joyous, relaxing experience—one in which you can breathe a sigh of relief as you finally walk through that door—whether you’re a lost dog, a person who had a hard day, or a soldier returning from war. But what happens when the person who returns home isn’t the same person who left? What if the growing pains caused by one’s experiences make home not feel so…homey?

These questions and conundrums were what led alumna Kelly Wadsworth, Ph.D., to Saybrook University. After serving as a clergy member in Iraq from 2008 to 2009, she found that many of her service members were in this transitional period.

“I had a problem I was seeing throughout my unit and others, and I was looking for a way to solve it. Beyond the black and white trauma-based problems, I was seeing a new narrative,” Dr. Wadsworth says. “In this new coming of age they were experiencing, they were asking deep existential questions about war and peace. Why do we go in the first place? What constitutes a good life?”

Many of the symptoms we associate with veterans returning from war include stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and moral injury. Dr. Wadsworth’s experiences taught her that these are really symptoms of something deeper.

“I was talking to soldiers about a profound change they felt because of their experience. When they came back, they could not very easily go back into the jobs, families, and communities that they had just 12 months prior,” Dr. Wadsworth says. “They said they didn’t fit, because they were now asking the real questions of life. If your whole life becomes different, you might need to recalibrate just about everything. What are the tools you need to do that?

During her time at Saybrook, she took a phenomenological approach to studying these very questions and trying to bridge the gap between problem and solution. Through deep interviews and research, she started to come up with further questions about whose responsibility it is to help our soldiers answer these questions—who supports these types of identity inquiries?

Is it simply Veterans Affairs? Are civilian therapists the answer? Pharmaceuticals?

“My dissertation was not just me pursuing my own interests, but rather expanding the horizon of what I understood to even be the horizon,” Dr. Wadsworth says. “Who can help answer the existential questions of truth and fidelity? Is it government programs—run by the same government that sent them to war? Are they the ones that can restore some kind of goodness? Or is it the task of the civilian sector? Does that need to be our collective responsibility, embraced by average people in regular communities, in community centers and town halls, and places of worship?”

Currently serving as a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Seattle, Dr. Wadsworth has always been interested in the intersection of identities and serving people who are asking the hard questions. Treating our veterans and helping them find their home is just one example of this.

“The question of homecoming—figuring out where home is, where is one’s place, and how to find one’s place, if either the terrain within your own self has radically changed or the terrain around you has changed—doesn’t have an easy answer. But I wonder if the organization that caused the moral injury can be the one who helps treat the injury,” she says.

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