Killeen, Texas is a military town. With Fort Hood nearby, Killeen’s churches routinely reach out to soldiers and their families, and have members serving in or retired from the military.
But as one Disciples church discovered, there are still opportunities for new ministry. The congregation, Central Christian Church, is launching a support group for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A few years back, Central’s members began providing lunch to Fort Hood’s chaplains and chaplain trainees. One of them told Central’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Bushor, about the need for a spiritual support group for vets with PTSD. Bushor was surprised that no other churches were offering this ministry.
Central Christian’s PTSD group will begin in January. It will be led by Dr. Weldon Bowling, a church member who served in the Navy in Vietnam and Korea, and later opened a private practice as a psychotherapist.
The congregation’s effort is timely, given President Obama’s October 21 announcement that the remaining troops in Iraq will be home by the end of the year. Fort Hood is home to the Army’s main detachment in Iraq, Bushor said.
Even in areas without a military base, Disciples can help returning troops and their families, said Steven Doan, a retired pastor and the denomination’s endorsement officer for chaplains. Sometimes the needs are even greater, because troops in the reserves often don’t have the same support systems as those returning to base.
Doan fields many calls from Disciples wanting to support those in the military. His tells them to make sure deployed personnel feel like they are part of the congregation’s life, even when absent. Care packages and letters are an excellent way to do this, he said.
Assisting with the family’s everyday needs can also ease the minds of those who are deployed, said Kyle Fauntleroy, Commanding Officer of the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center at Fort Jackson, S.C. Church members can offer help with practical tasks — cutting the grass, providing childcare, running errands, and lending a hand with home repairs, for example.
“But be prepared to hear ‘no thank you,’ Fauntleroy said. “And just because you hear ‘no thank you’ once doesn’t mean you can’t call again.”
Fauntleroy advises church members to respect the family’s wishes when the serviceman or woman is returning home. Readjusting to life in the U.S. — especially coming from Iraq or Afghanistan — takes anywhere from a month to a year, sometimes longer. He recalls returning from Kuwait and Iraq and feeling overwhelmed by everyday choices — from what brand of cereal to buy, to what to do with his free time.
Churches hoping to offer special events or dinners, or flock to the airport to greet returning troops, should check with the family. Fauntleroy wanted to spend the first few days alone with his loved ones. “You want to be welcomed back, but slowly and easily, without too many demands,” he said.
Doan agrees. In the churches he pastored, Veterans Day and Memorial Day were observed, but he tried to keep things in perspective. “Most veterans want to be acknowledged, but they don’t want to be fussed over.”
Disciples are on the leading edge of helping returning troops by calling attention to “moral injury,” a condition recently identified by the Veterans Administration and others, says Disciples theologian and activist Rita Nakashima Brock. In July, the denomination’s General Assembly adopted the resolution “Moral Injury and Spiritual Care in Time of War.”
The primary factor behind recent attention to moral injury is the high suicide rate among veterans and active duty military, which has increased “even though there has been much better research on PTSD and better methods for treating it,” Brock said. Moral injury is sometimes seen in those who have PTSD, but it has more to do with personal morality and spirituality than psychology, she added.
Brock became aware of the issue during her work on the Truth Commission on Conscience and War. She and the commission are developing resources for faith communities to understand moral injury and respond with ministries that help veterans find healing. Because churches understand the concepts of sin, guilt, and redemption, they are well positioned to minister in this area, she said.
Fauntleroy appreciated the discussions during the Assembly around issues of war and peace. “It was safe and non-judgmental. Every political and theological perspective was represented in the room,” he said.
The tension created by having different perspectives, within both the denomination and its churches, can be a good thing, he said. As long as people express their views with humility and are willing to listen, “that leaves room for conversation and for understanding.”
By Rebecca Woods