When War Comes Home
Ministering to the Veteran and Family
The church that opens it doors to combat veterans will offer a much-needed ministry to a population often overlooked.
By Scott McChrystal with John J. Morris and Terry Callis
January 8, 2009, was a crisp, sunny day in Washington, D.C. As I took the elevator down to the hotel lobby, my mind flashed back through childhood memories, including visits to the Pentagon where my dad worked — interrupted by tours to Vietnam or the State Department.
Today I would not see my dad. But maybe I would see my brother, Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal, director for the Joint Staff under Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. My role as representative of the Assemblies of God at the annual National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces would take me to the Pentagon to hear how church organizations could support the needs of military personnel and their families during the war on terror.
Earlier in the week, my wife, Judy, and I spent the night with my brother and his wife. He had said nothing about his presence at our meeting. Apparently Admiral Mullen had chosen to brief our group. But midway through the morning sessions, the chaplain for the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked if I wanted to introduce my brother. Admiral Mullen had asked my brother to brief.
In early afternoon my brother arrived for the 30-minute briefing. I introduced him; and, needless to say, neither of us could resist a few humorous jabs.
As the voice for the chairman, Stan told us the admiral’s desire was to take care of warriors and their families from cradle to grave. He explained that the admiral viewed this as a national responsibility to care for military people, summarizing steps taken by the Department of Defense and each military service and highlighting the good work done by Veterans Affairs.
General McChrystal paused for a few seconds as though to say, “Pay close attention to what follows. This pertains to you.” Reiterating he was speaking for the chairman, he stated that Admiral Mullen was acutely aware that the combined work of the military and Veterans Affairs was not coming close to providing the full spectrum of care and support the military/veteran community deserves. Many servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. He closed with a passionate appeal in the hopes we would encourage our respective church organizations to support our returning warriors and their families.
How is America doing with our new generation of returning veterans? How big is the challenge? What are the issues?
Since 9/11, Department of Defense figures indicate that over 2 million men and women have served in our armed forces. Over 770,000 have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once.
The numbers of veterans leaving military service and returning to their communities is rising. Not since Vietnam has the United States encountered such a massive wave of its veterans reintegrating on the homeland.
Efforts toward returning Vietnam veterans fell short. The declining public support during the latter stages of the war overshadowed national awareness of the needs of returning veterans.
Fortunately, the attitude toward the military since 2001 has been largely positive. Although heated debate about strategy and goals for Iraq and Afghanistan continues, support for the men and women who serve in our military forces has remained high.
General Mullen is not the first national leader to articulate the need for this nation to take care of its veterans. George Washington, our first president, observed: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
The mission statement of Veterans Affairs reflects a promise spoken by our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln: “To fulfill Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
But high regard for the heroes who risk their lives is not enough. As has been reported over the past several years, many returning veterans experience significant problems reintegrating with their families, communities, and society in general.
Opportunity Knocking at Our Door
What is the answer? Churches have opportunity to contribute in significant ways. Across America, there are an estimated 361,000 churches, approximately 12,400 affiliated with the Assemblies of God. The potential to support veterans and families seems unlimited.
Churches are in communities where veterans live and work. These churches contain civilians with abilities, skills, and resources, in addition to veterans who understand the issues facing our newest generation of veterans, and are willing to help. No other organization in the public or private sector is more equipped or postured to contribute.
What issues face returning veterans?
The warrior returns home with a plethora of issues. While this is obvious, the church may overlook other issues related to spouses, children, and relatives.
The veteran, married or single, male or female, involved in direct combat or not, will return home from a deployment with a degree of reintegration stigma. The issues can range from severe posttraumatic stress to reacclimation to home life. Every warrior uses different life skills to handle the stressors. He must have the opportunity to make the adjustments with as much civility and ease as possible. This dose not excuse the individual from taking personal responsibility for his or her actions or choices, but society and particularly the church need to understand the mitigating circumstances.
The veteran’s experiences prior to deployment, during deployment, and returning home all impact his or her ability to transition back into normalcy. Granted, some wartime experiences are much worse than others, but every experience, good or bad, will affect the warrior’s return home.
Issues related to a warrior’s reintegration are:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. We cannot diminish the severity of PTSD, but neither should we allow it to become a handicap to stifle the progress and reunion of the warrior back home.
- Reunion with spouse. Issues before deployment may not have been resolved. New issues have arisen. Roles have changed.
- Reunion with children. Discipline becomes an issue with the reintroduction of the parent who was absent for many months. Some veterans return as the sole parent and attempt to reestablish relationships with children and their caregivers.
- Reunion with other family members and friends may be static and tense.
- Returning to a job may be difficult and coworkers may resent the presence of the veteran. The veteran may even have difficulty finding employment with the decline in the economy and high unemployment rate.
- Unresolved feelings about the war and the warrior’s participation. This can result in guilt, anger, fear, disappointment, hopelessness, and severe depression.
- The loss of the band-of-brothers intimacy. This bond is unique to the military family and cannot be replicated in other family or friend relationships.
- Listlessness and emptiness as a result of not having a particular daily routine or the adrenaline rush of being in a combat zone.
- Single soldiers may feel a depth of loneliness and friendlessness. They had a family and community during deployment that can be difficult to replace after returning home.
What are the issues facing the spouses and families of veterans?
The family or spouse is too often a misplaced or forgotten entity. They, too, face a number of very difficult and unique issues relative to the deployment and redeployment of the veteran. To illustrate the potential impact of deployment for a military family, think of the family in a canoe in the middle of a lake. Picture deployment as the military member standing up and jumping out. At a minimum, the action of a military person jumping from the canoe leaves the family rocking back and forth on the lake, but hopefully still remaining afloat. A poorly executed leap can cause the narrow vessel to capsize. In this case, imagine the family that is left behind, floating in the lake and now facing the challenge of turning the canoe right side up and attempting to get back in the canoe.
But the metaphor does not stop. Consider further as the military member returns from deployment. The member swims back to the canoe and tries to climb aboard without tipping the canoe. This is no easy task. As often as not, the canoe turns upside down in the process. Reintegration for the veteran can be just as difficult. Sometimes the entire family gets turned upside down.
Some common issues related to the spouse and family members are:
- Conflict of roles. In most cases, the spouse has assumed primary responsibility for children, finances, scheduling, etc. The spouse establishes routines in the absence of the warrior. Relinquishing responsibility may seem like a blessing, but it can also be a challenge.
- Children may resent the presence of the returning parent and even express anger or hurt because of the veteran’s absence. Younger children will have to relearn the returning parent’s role.
- A spouse, family, and friends may not understand the complex range of emotions of the returning veteran.
- Finances may take a considerable bounce up or down with the return of the veteran.
- Spiritual values and religious priorities may have changed during the deployment of the warrior.
Considerations Related to Reserve and Guard Troops and Their Families
Active-duty veterans and their families have a vast number of services on posts and bases across America and abroad. That support is invaluable to readiness and reunion.
Yet, a great number of our warriors are from the reserve components. National Guardsmen and Reservists experience multiple deployments unlike our military have seen in its wartime history. As a result, our veterans and families from the Reserve forces lack many resources and services available to the active components.
The church and surrounding community have opportunity to pick up the slack. The church can impact spouses and families through resources and ministries.
What Can Churches Do To Help Veterans and Their Families?
Chaplain (LTC) John J. Morris with the Minnesota Army National Guard is a veteran of three deployments to Iraq. Additionally, he has helped the Minnesota NG develop effective programs that focus on helping soldiers and families with reintegration following deployments. Morris provides the following information to churches:
1. Make your church a military-friendly church. This means you are willing to see members of the military as you see any other distressed population in your parish. Members of the military volunteer for difficult service and their families share in the sacrifice. Jesus ministered to soldiers, and His church has the opportunity to do the same.
To raise awareness, a military-friendly church publicly acknowledges that church members are in the military and the church appreciates their service. Some churches designate teams to pray for the military. Other churches list the names of those serving in the military in their Sunday bulletins. Some churches have pictures of those serving in the military on a display board in the fellowship hall or lobby. Churches can project pictures of those serving on a screen in the sanctuary before or after services.
2. Reach out to military families. Treat the military family during combat deployment as you would any family in crisis. They appreciate a ministry of presence that lets the family know the church wants to walk with them through the long days and nights of separation. A periodic phone call from a pastor, elder, deacon, or member to offer support and a listening ear is helpful. Help from changing the oil on cars to helping with yard work all combine to assist the family with the responsibilities they face when their soldier is gone.
Youth pastors and children’s ministers can reach out to the children of service members. These children struggle with the trauma of separation from their loved one and the stress of being home alone. A caring, consistent outreach to them offers a source of comfort to the children, the soldier, and the spouse.
3. Reach out to the deployed soldier. There is nothing like getting snail mail from home. If the church secretary mails the bulletin weekly, she is performing a wonderful service. If the pastor sends a handwritten note, it is fresh water in the desert. If the Sunday School, the men’s group, the women’s Bible study, and other church groups send a care package and note, the soldier will feel loved, valued, and remembered.
4. When the soldier comes home, welcome him home. A simple acknowledgement in the church bulletin or newsletter is wonderful. With the consent of the soldier and his or her family, a public welcome with an announcement from the platform on Sunday morning helps. Offering to baby-sit the children, enabling a couple to go out, also helps.
By welcoming the soldier home and acknowledging the sacrifice his family has made, the church validates its shared struggle and affirms the soldier’s service.
5. Support beyond the yellow ribbon. If the church considers the service member and family as people who just survived a fire, it will guide efforts to help for the long haul. A soldier and his family have endured the fire of war. It will take time for the family and soldier to rebuild their lives. Nothing will be as it was. Over the long process of reintegration, the church can help the family grow into a new normal.
Do not overwhelm the soldier and his or her family with attention; but, at the same time, give them pastoral care — a ministry of presence to meet practical needs and be agents of grace and healing.
Provide a meal once a week for several months after the soldier returns, offer daycare so the couple can rebuild their marriage, paying for the couple to attend a marriage retreat, and provide counseling if needed.
6. Listen, support, absolve. Soldiers need a place where they can share war experiences. They need a place where they can make theological inquiry and gain the strength needed to grow through their combat experience and into the person God is calling them to be. A church that provides a listening ear, a place for confession, and a heart of compassion becomes a haven for soldiers and their families.
7. Be alert for signs of distress. Because a soldier and his or her family regularly attend Sunday worship does not mean everything is going well with their reintegration. Check with them periodically. Depression, hypervigilance, withdrawal, inability to hold a job, anger issues, and discomfort in crowds are common signs of stress in combat veterans. Children are often the first to reflect the stress happening at home. Pay attention to what they are saying and doing. By expressing concern and opening the door for support, the church is offering the combat veteran the opportunity to receive help, healing, and hope.
Every month soldiers return home from combat. The church that opens it doors to combat veterans will offer a much-needed ministry to a population often overlooked. Yellow ribbons are nice; however, through His church, love, support, and a cup of cold water is Christ’s incarnational gift to the combat veteran and family.