Q: In troubling times such as these, what can we do to address the many health issues faced by our military? -- Jim D., Massachusetts
A: This Veterans Day was our opportunity to honor an estimated 21.5 million military veterans in the United States, with speeches and parades across the country. A national ceremony took place again at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was our opportunity to honor publicly a commitment to service and sacrifice that has held our nation strong and resilient for more than two centuries. For those of us who have had the honor of serving in the military, it was also an opportunity to reflect on what that service to our country has meant to us, as well as to others.
The fact that Veterans Day fell on a Sunday this year provides us with another reminder. It should serve to remind us of the vital role our faith communities play in supporting veterans, returning warriors and their families. For untold numbers of our military, the ravages of war do not end once their planes touch down on U.S. soil. Emotional, physical, psychiatric, relational and spiritual challenges await them. Many suffer from major depression or combat stress. Too often these men and women remain silent about their struggles. Nearly 1 in 5 service members who have returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, according to a RAND Corp. study, yet only about half of those experiencing mental health problems seek treatment. Many discover that civilian medical resources where they live are insufficient to help manage the range of combat-related wounds and psychiatric trauma war veterans face.
Meanwhile, as the march of troops returning home from harm's way continues to accelerate, religious congregations are discovering how spirituality can help veterans afflicted with postwar stress in the healing and recovery process. "The road home from war is longer, steeper, and often more challenging than the road to war for most soldiers and their families," notes John Morris in a 2006 article in Christianity Today. "The church can be a helpful partner in the process [of recovery]," he adds. Today more and more ministries are trying to be just that.
Since 2007, Campus Crusade for Christ International's Military Ministry has helped hundreds of local churches launch or expand upon programs addressing spiritual needs that accompany post-traumatic stress disorder. Equipping churches to be "bridges to healing" for returning warriors, veterans and their families remains a central mission of the organization as it continues to mobilize and train churches, counselors and communities across America for effective ministry to military members, veterans and families.
Still, it is no easy task. As pointed out in a 2009 article in USA Today, PTSD poses challenges even for well-intentioned congregations because it is often hidden. "A veteran with the disorder may appear fine in worship, but at home he may obsess about security, struggle to sleep, panic at loud noises or become easily enraged," according to the article. And though many service members will return home to begin an active role in their church or community, many more will not.
Some congregations are choosing to tackle what they see as the disorder's spiritual dimension. "Many will feel guilty for the [inhuman] things they have done in order to survive in war," says John Blehm, a Vietnam veteran and PTSD patient who leads the support group at Skyway Church in Goodyear, Ariz. His group is designed to get them to understand they are not alone and can be forgiven, an important starting point to allow the healing process to begin.
"With understanding comes the opportunity to minister," Morris reminds us in his article for Christianity Today. He also offers the following steps, which can be taken by churches that want to help combat veterans and their families. Among his suggestions:
• "Make yourself a 'military-friendly' church. That doesn't mean that you have to support the U.S. foreign policy or promote war. It does mean that you are willing to see members of the military as you see any other distressed population in your parish. ... A 'military-friendly' church acknowledges, publicly, in church publications and from the lectern, that members of the church are in the military and their service is appreciated by the church."
• "Reach out to military families. Treat the military family of a soldier serving in combat as you would any family in crisis. Many of the skills learned in ministering to families who have been through a significant crisis apply to a military family during a combat deployment."
• "When the soldier returns, welcome them home. ... By welcoming the soldier home and acknowledging the sacrifice their family has made, the church will validate their shared struggle and affirm their service."
• "Listen, support, absolve, and don't condemn. One of the tragic legacies of the American experience in Vietnam is that our society either ignored or condemned the military service of members who fought in that war. Societal shame is a powerful tool, and it broke the spirits of countless Vietnam veterans. ... A church that will provide a listening ear, a place for confession, and a heart of compassion will become a healing haven for soldiers and their families."