If I told you that there is an entire group of people within the United States that has seemingly been forgotten by the church, would I pique your interest? Maybe so, but if not, what if you were to discover that this group of people is taking their own lives at a staggering number of 23 each day while only making up less than five percent of the United States population? Maybe that would get you a little fired up. Or maybe I should go on to tell you that this group of people has an elevated risk for PTSD, substance abuse, and a divorce rate that exceeds the national average.
Furthermore, the accusation can be made that, much as the world has forgotten about this group, the church has followed suit.
This article is about the men and women that have served our nation in the armed forces and the lack of response or holistic care they typically receive from the church. The point of this article, however, is not to take shots at the church from behind a screen (something people have gotten good at, as you can see throughout social media). I love the church and serve it as a lead minister in Colorado.
“The accusation can be made that, much as the world has forgotten about this group, the church has followed suit.”
But I am also a veteran myself who knows what it’s like to struggle with adjusting to a world that seems to expect you just to move on from your past endeavors. This in itself seems like such a ridiculous proposition; we certainly would not appreciate someone telling us to get over it as we dealt with our own trauma. But, if we are honest, in a way this is what society has done to veterans. The good news, however, is that through some hard work, we can begin to restore and renew this people group. In writing this article and the few that will follow, I hope that the church may feel an overwhelming spirit of conviction and act because these men and women need us.
Ozark Christian College professor Chad Ragsdale puts it this way: “You have to drop pebbles into shoes, because as a pebble becomes more irritating you have to decide to remove it or to just deal with the discomfort.” Therefore, my prayer is this: As this article is published and you have the opportunity to read it, may it become a pebble dropped in your shoe pushing you towards action.
So, as churches, how might we begin recognizing and helping this forgotten group? Where do we start?
“May it become a pebble dropped in your shoe pushing you towards action.”
Where Do We Start?
First, we must understand when working with veterans that no two people are the same. This seems like a sort of stock statement, something that you may have heard in a freshman-level psychology class during your time in college. This however is important to note, because as you try to minister to veterans in your communities, what is a problem for one veteran may not be a problem for the next. This means that we as pastors, church leaders, and, most importantly, Christ’s followers must work hard at building intentional relationships.
To further introduce you to this group we’ve largely forgotten, I would like to take a moment and walk you through the big picture of the military process. This may not make sense now, but I promise we will connect the dots before it’s over. Each person that enters the military must go through a training program, different for each branch, which aims to tear down the person’s identity and give them a new one. This new identity gives the military a unified body of soldiers that cling to a few truths. If this sounds familiar, it may be because it is also one of our goals as the church to invite people into a new identity based on accepting new truths. We help people tear down walls and borders and give them an established identity in Christ.
“Each person that enters the military must go through a training program, different for each branch, which aims to tear down the person’s identity and give them a new one.”
This means that, for however long a veteran serves in the military, they have an identity that was transposed on them as well as on those they serve with. A problem surfaces after the transition from soldier, sailor, marine, or airman to civilian. This identity they have adopted is no longer as valid as it has been stripped away and has little to no value in a society that seems not to care about it.
This is particularly troubling to consider when we think of the many people who join the military at eighteen years old. For them, this is the only identity they have known since they legally became an adult. If you can understand this loss of identity when a person becomes a veteran, you can begin to picture the difficulties that can emerge when a person returns to civilian life. They often don’t really know who they are anymore and all too often are unable to process trauma and other difficulties they’ve been through with the people who would best understand.
“They often don’t really know who they are anymore and all too often are unable to process trauma.”
As this article comes to a close, I would like to point to an issue I can see as a veteran—an issue that has allowed the church to miss this group of people. The issue is this: most churches simply do not know that there are veterans who are suffering in their community. As a soon-to-be graduate of Ozark Christian College, I have had the opportunity to serve alongside, as well as study under, what I believe to be some of the best and brightest minds in the church. Yet, again and again, as I brought the problem addressed in this article forward to professors, pastors, and friends, the overwhelming response was, “We had no clue,” or something along those lines. All the while, veterans do not naturally reach out for help because of the stigma of being perceived as weak.
Thus the church, not knowing about the problem, has missed the opportunity to help an entire people group silently suffering in our communities in the United States. While this argument of not knowing makes sense as stated in the introduction, my hope is that this article has drawn your attention to the problem at hand. I hope you’re starting to feel a pebble in your shoe.
For Part 2 in this series (“Some Ideas for Reaching Veterans through Your Church”), click here.
For Part 3 in this series (“Do’s & Don’ts in Reaching Veterans”), click here.