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Churches can minister to returning veterans, families as they readjust to everyday lifecomment (0)

February 2, 2012

Churches can minister to returning veterans, families as they readjust to everyday life

Sitting around the kitchen table, the Rivers family are a picture of the quintessential American family. Over a freshly prepared meal, they share stories of the day’s events. The room is filled with the warmth of smiles, laughter and genuine compassion for each other.

But it wasn’t that long ago one significant piece of this portrait — the family’s patriarch, Ray Rivers — was absent, as he served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Baptist-endorsed chaplain. His deployment in 2008 and 2009 forced the family to adjust.

When he returned from duty, the Rivers family needed to adjust again. A father was back. A husband had returned. Deployment was stressful but reconfiguring roles within the family after Rivers returned also proved to be a trying time.

“It’s stressful when they get home,” his wife, Paula, said. “He came home and said to me, ‘What happened to my wife?’ Because I changed. I had to. I was forced to change. I was forced to become more self-confident, more bold, more militant, more whatever just to make things work.”

The Rivers family faced and overcame challenges typical of a military family looking at, dealing with or readjusting in the wake of a deployment, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey that marked the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq make up the longest period of sustained military engagement in U.S. history, and the nation has carried out these campaigns with a voluntary force, leaving 0.5 percent of the nation’s population to shoulder the brunt of the effort.

The theater of war is only the beginning of where post-Sept. 11 veterans sense issues, according to the report. More than four in 10 said adjustment to civilian life has been difficult, up from the 25 percent of pre-Sept. 11 veterans.

Thirty-seven percent of post-Sept. 11 veterans reported suffering post-traumatic stress. That number escalates to 49 percent when dealing with veterans who served in a combat zone.

Nearly half of married post-Sept. 11 veterans reported their deployments had a negative impact on their relationship with their spouse. Thirty-four percent of pre-Sept. 11 veterans said the same thing.

Brad Riza, associate director of chaplaincy relations for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) and a Vietnam veteran who has dealt with his own post-traumatic stress issues for about 40 years, said improvements in medicine have helped soldiers on the battlefield but left more veterans to work through the scars of war. Modern medicine saves the lives of people who would have died in combat during previous wars. However, with more wounded soldiers living, there are more people trying to make sense of what they experienced.

“Because the care is better, they get treated better and survive,” Riza said. “Because of that, we’re dealing with more emotional scars.”

Military personnel often are haunted by the images they saw and a sense of leaving friends and fellow soldiers behind as well as wondering why their lives were spared, Riza said. Military personnel are taught never to leave a fellow soldier behind. Yet some of them struggle with the reality that they did.

The military offers a variety of options to help active personnel deal with their wartime experiences, Riza said. But beyond the official channels, military personnel have a “band of brothers” around them who have gone through similar experiences in the form of their unit.

“You have a platform of support,” Riza said. “The military does a good job with that.”

After military personnel have finished their service, they can go to a Veterans Affairs hospital for help, but there may not be one close to where the veteran lives. While the hospitals’ reputations are improving, some veterans choose not to go there, believing their doctors and local hospitals provide better care, Riza said.

The combination of these factors leaves some veterans without a viable avenue through which they can find help for their post-traumatic stress issues, including flashbacks, flashes of anger, feelings of regret and lack of closure, Riza noted.

Emotional and psychological issues are compounded when combined with the current economy, said BGCT-endorsed Chaplain Mike Mackrell, who serves in the U.S. National Guard in Austin, Texas. Many service people are struggling to find work after serving their nation. “The transition of going from one, two, three deployments and coming back to have your employer keep your job or find another job is tough,” Mackrell said.

This gap in places where soldiers and veterans can find solace would seem like a natural place where churches could minister, Riza noted. But doing so is difficult. Many veterans struggle to find a path through which they can express what they’re going through and often can’t find that avenue in churches.

Where are veterans supposed to turn when they are reliving experiences of significant injuries or watching close friends die? Where can they discuss performing duties such as picking up and identifying body parts after an improvised explosive device is detonated? Civilians don’t understand those experiences and lack the necessary counseling skills to have those conversations, Riza said.

“They can’t talk about that with their pastor,” Riza said. “They can’t talk about that with their Sunday School class.”

Churches realize the need for ministering to military personnel and their families and have tried different approaches to serving. Many congregations recognize veterans during services near July Fourth, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. A significant number post pictures of church members and relatives of church members who are serving in combat. Churches thank veterans for their service and pray during worship for those who are deployed.

Other churches are less formal about the way they seek to minister to military families. They rely on the church body to reach out to military members and their families as they would any other person in the community. Sunday School classes, Woman’s Missionary Union groups and others within the congregation routinely pray for specific needs.

To make a more direct impact, churches can contact their local bases, armories or chaplains, Mackrell said. The military holds Christmas celebrations and donation drives to gather personal items for specific soldiers. Chaplains often can provide specific points of need churches can fill. Recently Mackrell connected a church with a soldier who returned from deployment only to see his home had burned. The church provided supplies for the soldier and his wife.

First Baptist Church, San Antonio, provides meals periodically for military personnel and their families through the Fisher Houses, located at military medical centers to provide a free place for military families to stay while their loved ones receive care, and the Warrior and Family Support Center at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

The meals are a way for First, San Antonio, to show servicemen and women that the congregation cares about them, said Charlotte Anderson, who coordinates the effort and volunteers to help the chaplain at Brooke Army Medical Center. People are in the houses for short periods of time at crucial moments, and the meals give families one less task they have to worry about.

Church members prepare and serve the meals. They often have an opportunity to visit with some of the people who come to eat as well.

In serving military members and their families, as well as working with the chaplain, Anderson seeks to help however she can. When First, San Antonio, members discover ways they can help military personnel, they are eager to get involved. One ministry opportunity often leads to another.

“We just kind of keep our eyes and ears open and try to meet needs,” Anderson said.

Otis Corbitt, an associate in the office of associational missions and church planting at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and a National Guard chaplain, believes the best way for the church to help returning veterans is simply to be the church to them. A veteran’s reintegration into civilian life can take a year or more, he said, and “the number of challenges [to reintegration] is as big as the aspects of people’s everyday lives.”

Because there is no way to know if or how a soldier will struggle to reintegrate, “the best thing for the churches to do is simply to love the families … and to be patient with them,” Corbitt said. If an issue arises, then church members can go to that person as a friend and gently ask him or her about it, he said.

Corbitt also warned that people who have not seen a combat zone do not necessarily know how to sympathize with those who have. Any Christian ministering to a veteran should keep that in mind, he said, and resist saying things like “I know how you feel.”

No matter how congregations approach ministry to veterans, Riza believes it’s vital. People such as veterans who have seen some of the darker aspects of life need to hear a word of encouragement and have the opportunity to ground their lives in the love of Christ, he said. Without Christ, their postwar struggles are much more difficult to survive.

“Church can give a message of hope,” Riza said. “That’s the one piece of advice I would give.”

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