Two former U.S. Army Medical Command civilian employees are looking for troops and veterans to share something they may be reluctant to discuss: near-death experiences.
Not "near-dying" events like when a service member was nearly killed and saved by advancements in combat medicine.
Rather, they're looking for the kind of episode in which a service member was badly injured and died, or came very close to it, before being revived — and in the interim had some sort of experience, like hovering over their own broken body, seeing a bright light or meeting a dead relative or even Jesus Christ.
You know, that kind of near-death experience.
San Antonio residents Genny Krackau and Jan Justice have launched "Light Stories: Beyond the Explosion" to solicit anecdotes from combat veterans who underwent a near-death experience, or NDE.
The two believe that by providing a platform for these troops to share their unique stories and aggregating them, they can help them feel less isolated, and consequently promote mental healing.
Krackau said the opportunity could help troops understand what they went through and how they can learn from it.
"Once they feel comfortable talking about their NDE and read other similar stories, they will realize they are not alone. Often, they don't want people to know what they went through because they may think they are weird or mentally messed up. That's unfair," said Krakau, a retired researcher and health systems specialist.
Books and films abound on near-death experiences — as do articles debunking their veracity by skeptics and scientists.
Surveys taken in the U.S., Australia and Germany indicate that 4 percent to 15 percent of the population say they've had an NDE.
But are these events a real teaser to the other side, or simply the body and brain's response to the process of dying — a last gasp of hallucinatory hope before the system shuts down?
A massive research effort in 2008 of more than 2,000 patients in 15 hospitals in the U.S., United Kingdom and Austria found that 46 percent of those who died or were resuscitated had negative experiences when they almost died — either fearful or persecutory experiences.
Roughly 9 percent had symptoms typical of an NDE — like traveling through a tunnel or seeing a bright light or meeting lost relatives — and 2 percent showed full awareness of an out-of-body experience, having seen and heard events as they transpired.
But believers say nearly uniform descriptions of NDEs across cultures, genders, ages and religions show they do happen and need to be explored and addressed.
And those who experience them may also have effects that could last a lifetime — consequences that could be puzzling to those who don't remember their NDE or try to bury them by refusing to discuss them, said retired Army Col. Diane Corcoran, president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that sponsors support groups and research on NDEs.
Corcoran said NDEs often are life-changing events that can result in significant personality and physical changes, such as being more altruistic or in tune with nature, becoming intolerant of violence, wanting to pursue another career or help others or have hypersensitivity to bright lights, loud noises and environmental exposures.
"My concern is with all these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with blast injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan — and there are many — [who] have had NDEs and nobody is addressing them," Corcoran said. "They may feel like they are losing their minds and they have not."
Researchers have tried to explain NDEs as a physiological response to dying. British psychologist Susan Blackmore, for example, has maintained since the 1980s that the symptoms are the result of oxygen deprivation, citing studies that show pilots and other people who experience anoxia have tunnel vision and can see bright lights.
A 2010 study of 53 heart attack patients in Slovenia, including 11 who reported having an NDE, found that the levels of carbon dioxide detected in the bloodstream during cardiac and resuscitation correlated to the NDEs: those who had high levels of CO2 reported an NDE while those with lower levels didn't.
And a 2013 study at the University of Michigan of rats found that they experienced a surge of electrical activity in the brain after their hearts stopped beating, and this brain activity, which appears to be conscious processing, could be responsible for the near-death experiences.
But Corcoran said regardless of the cause, such events need to be discussed and explored. "This is a life-changing experience. These after-effects don't last a week or two. They are embedded in the soul. If troops don't find someone to share their experience with, someone who will let them know it is normal, it can be very isolating," she said said.
Retired Army Cpl. Bill Vandenbush understands the need to share the experience. He was on patrol in Vietnam in April 1969 when U.S. forces dropped a bomb too close to his unit's position. The blast shredded his right side and destroyed his face.
"I thought I was going to die, so I took off my pac," Vandenbush said. "Next thing I know, I'm in this dark corridor and I came out in this incredibly beautiful white light, so full of peace and this incredible energy. I had no concern about my life, no worries."
He spoke with two "light beings" while he was in this euphoric state — one of them his grandfather, who promised to show him around. The other, however, told him he needed to go back. And return through the tunnel he did.
"I was told I would have a long and productive life and I would help others," Vandenbush said.
Although he struggled with severe injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, he recovered and became a therapist at the Veterans Affairs Department for more than 20 years.
He also wrote a book about his NDE.
"People don't talk about it because they are afraid others will think they are crazy or weak. Veterans don't want to come across as being weak. But it's not weak, it's not crazy. It happens and it's important to connect with others who have experienced the same thing," Vandenbush said.
Those interested in participating in the Light Stories project can go to the website, www.lightstories.org or contact Justice and Krackau through their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/vetlightstories. They are seeking experiences from any conflict; their sole requirement is that the NDE occurred during combat.
They also can contact Corcoran's organization, IANDS, at www.iands.org.
"I'd love to start a support group solely for military personnel and their families who have had this experience because they are so reluctant to to talk about them in front of others. I think it would really help," Corcoran said.
Added Krackau: "They need to know that they are special in having been blessed with the experience. They aren't alone."
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.