Guest Commentary

The Healing of Combat Vets

(Dr. Nathan Attwood) - About a year ago I noticed that it was more difficult for me to integrate vets into the life of the congregation as others. Recent vets seemed uninterested in Sunday School, for example. I began to think about ways to maybe connect them with each other.

About the same time I went to a clergy day at Maxwell. The chaplain told us stuff that shocked me. He talked about how his deployment nearly cost him his marriage and shared openly about the psychological damage war had done to him. He asked the clergy to partner and figure out ways to help vets. He told us that more Iraq and Afghanistan vets had died from suicide than combat.

Right then, I knew the church needed to do something to deal with a crisis. I also knew that I knew absolutely nothing about how to help, and that combat vets were likely to feel as if a preacher could do not one thing to help them.

Around this time I worked a Kairos weekend at Staton prison. I met a young man inside who had been damaged by war and gotten into drugs to self medicate his PTSD. He was imprisoned on a drug charge. He had given his life to Christ and held no bad feelings toward the military or the state. He took responsibility for his actions and was full of joy. I was ashamed that this young man had risked his life and had his soul broken on my behalf, and that the society of which I am a represented participant had locked him up for doing what he could for dealing the with price he had paid to serve us. He deserved treatment and care and gratitude, not prison.

I began to talk to vets. I quickly learned that combat vets understand that combat is something no one can understand without experiencing it. Since then, I've found that if a vet broaches the subject of his or her service, if I will simply say, "I can't begin to imagine what that was like for you, and this is something I know has to be experienced to be understood," the vet will often open right up and share all kinds of things he or she wouldn't otherwise.

My dad served in Vietnam. I grew up never hearing anything about it. Last fall, we drove together to Pennsylvania to bring my grandmother home as the end of her life drew near. I mentioned my concern to him and he talked for hours about his experience. He shared all kinds of helpful thoughts about how churches could help vets.

In this same time frame I've dealt with at least a half dozen pastoral situations involving vets and their families that have opened my eyes to the nature and scope of this need. It would be inappropriate for me to share details of any of them. But I have come to know that people, families, and communities are suffering in often hidden and very hurtful ways because of the interior wounds of war and results of family separation.

I don't know how churches can help returning vets. But I'm learning. Here's are my hunches so far:

1. Vets are the best resource to help vets. It's highly unlikely that a vet will go to a support group. Pastors can't bridge the experience of combat unless they've been there. I have a hunch that personal connections between Vietnam vets and new Iraq and Afghanistan returnees could provide a vehicle of healing for both. Churches are full of vets who could serve as a ready and willing resource.

2. Vets go to the VA as a last resort, not as an initial place to deal with concerns, especially for mental and spiritual health. One of the vets in my congregation has suggested that the church could offer a military family day of some kind that would have fun stuff for the kids and VA reps available to explain resources. Screenings of various kinds could be made available, too.

3. Vietnam taught us that failing to welcome vets home can create an entire generation of wounded people. Their interior woundedness will not just subside over time. It will spill out into their relationships with spouse, children, employers, church, and community. I have come to believe that many Vietnam vets are still as wounded on the inside as if they had come home a few months ago. Society is more aware of the need to welcome vets, but it's unaware of how to heal the wounds. Thankfully, Iraq and Afghanistan returnees have not been called baby killers or been spit upon. I've spoken to Vietnam vets who had this experience. Even those who were most opposed to our recent wars have not acted similarly toward these vets, and for that we should be thankful.

Clergy, congregations, military, mental health professionals, medical professionals, chaplains, and society as a whole must enter into a constructive conversation on the challenges vets face and how to address them practically and holistically. We cannot let these vets suffer on the inside without doing what we can to heal this generation's wounds. We must create vehicles to share our learning and experiences.

I'm going to keep on learning all I can and talking to anyone who can teach me anything. I will try to share what I discover and hope that it will help others in ministry with vets. I especially invite conversation from churches and clergy who have had success in designing ministries that have helped vets.

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