G. Jeffrey MacDonald, writing in the Huffington Post, explores some of the ways faith groups are helping the more than 1.35 million veterans adjust to civilian life after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. MacDonald writes, “With symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affecting an estimated one-in-six returning service members, congregations are coming face-to-face with the tolls of war. Experts say faith groups have much to offer, even when the wounds include PTSD and traumatic brain injury.”
Hidden wounds can be tricky to manage…in part because they’re not easy to diagnose. Depression is common in the 3.2 million Americans who’ve suffered traumatic brain injury, he said. He urged members of faith communities to take note when someone seems overwhelmed by normal levels of light or sound, and make referrals for medical evaluations.
Congregations, however, can do much more than refer. Bauer suggested helping veterans find contemplative or more traditional worship services as an alternative to contemporary services where loud bands and bright lights can trigger anxious reactions.
Churches can show ongoing care in simple ways, Bauer said, such as hosting a monthly support dinner for military family members. They should also appoint a volunteer sponsor to check in monthly with a deployed serviceman or woman, and a second sponsor for his or her loved ones at home, during deployments.
“It’s unforgiveable in 2011 that someone (who belongs to a church) would be deployed to Afghanistan, and no one from that church would be willing to step up to the plate, be a sponsor and make sure they’re OK,” Bauer said. “That is a crime.”
Veterans say churches are finding their way in a new ministry landscape, though not always with success. James Knudsen, a Vietnam War veteran and PTSD sufferer in Marion, Iowa, says churches in his area have resisted requests for them to host support groups for veterans.
Episcopal priest Robert Certain of Marietta, Georgia has been ministering to service people for the past 35 years. In his July/August 2011 Vestry Papers article “Care for the Troops,” Certain writes:
“Our urgency for military ministry has grown as the war against terror has lingered. There are very few of our citizens in uniform – only about 1% – so they are very easy to be “missing in action” from the mission and ministry of the Church. Second, with the National Guard and Reserves as actively deployed into combat as their Active Component counterparts, they and their families face unique hardships. The Guard and Reserve member has to leave not only family and home behind, but also a civilian job that may not be there upon his or her return from deployment. As a result, they return to high family stress, loss of employment, alienation from peers, and social disorientation. These are all areas where faith communities have a certain level of care and expertise. The specific ministries begun in this parish grew out of our own spiritual life and have been designed to meet the needs of people in our own state.”
Certain’s congregation, St. Peter & St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, is actively engaged with CareForTheTroops an organization dedicated to the mental health care of our returning troops and their families. Providing information and training to families, clinicians, congregations, and community leaders, CareForTheTroops works to educate others about the culture, unique symptoms, and issues faced by military families.
Their website includes a variety of ways individuals and congregations can become involved in a congregation based military ministry programs, including a guidebook for leaders of military ministry congregation programs. These programs are designed to address the entire extended family associated with the person that is or has been in the military. The programs available and outlined on this website have the following goals:
Help the congregation members maintain an awareness of the existence and needs of those sacrificing their time and effort to support our country
Create an environment of acceptance within the congregation for any extended family member who worships or visits the congregation; acceptance of their needs (physical, material, and spiritual), and a willingness to join in their struggles, whatever they might be.
CareForTheTroops makes it a point to note that while their proposed ministry programs are starting points for each congregation to customize to meet their specific context, being part of a larger network helps build the network and allows for sharing among active congregations.
H/T Vital Posts Blog of the Episcopal Church Foundation