Friday, January 2, 2009

Returning Vets Ministry

HealthPartners Insitute of Medical Education in Minnesota, with support from the National Council of Churches, has developed an online video series which contains essential information for anyone who wants to learn more about the health care issues of returning military. Another generation ago, I found so many barriers to effective ministry with Vietnam war vets. The biggest was ignorance of the effects of war on mental health. Ignorance leads to isolation and paralysis on the part of churches who may want to do something more than sing songs, chant words, and wave flags.

Together with many conversations with chaplain friends, the video resource available at, there are some possible openings for church ministry to returning vets and families. Not all Vets' experiences and re-entry issues are the same, nor do some fit into the same recovery time-line. This being said, it takes a few weeks for some of the symptoms of PTSD to appear. A common symptom is avoidance/isolation. With the first four months, the worst of the PTSD symptoms are experienced and the combination therapies begin to help. After six months, most are finding success in a re-entry that still may not be complete but it is nevertheless deemed reasonably successful.

My chaplain friend, a Desert Storm Vet and with PTSD himself, likens his recovery to the 12 Steps and uses this model in working with Vets at the VA. Military personnel use the term "a new normal," which covers everything and really doesn't seem to do justice to what remains from the war in terms of trauma, damage, and recovery. My guess is that this re-entry is hard work and not understood by most people. So, maybe we should hold back our wanting to feel good and respect the needs of our returning soldiers who may prefer small, low key gatherings with close family over parades and parties. Continue the respect by refraining to engage returning military in political or foreign policy debates.

The VA wants and needs to take care of our Vets- the VA is only a phone call or a drive away. At the same time, and since the VA has re-integration down to a science and is reticent to ask for help (what's that about?), creative churches could take a lead in offering a safe place for recovery and healing. In this, we'd be taking our lead from Lincoln, who, in his Second Inaugural Address, spoke of our responsibility "to bind up the wounds of the nation." We are that nation and we have wounds that need healing.

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