“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008″
(April 18, 2008) — On Earth Peace held “Healing the Troops” workshops as part of its Welcome Home Project, during a Christian Peace Witness for Iraq in Washington, D.C., in March. Dale M. Posthumus of University Park Church of the Brethren in Hyattsville, Md., wrote a reflection from the experience. Following is an excerpt:
How does one witness for peace, yet build trust to serve the needs of individual veterans and their families dealing with the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual injuries caused by war? This was one important question discussed at the workshops.
Doris Abdullah, mother of a Marine who has served two tours in Iraq, explained that although war and the troops are connected issues, the problems of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines must be separated from the issues of the broader peace witness. Mel Menker, father of a National Guard soldier who has served a tour in Afghanistan and is in training to return to Afghanistan or Iraq, described how soldiers and their families are changed forever by deployment and combat.
Abdullah and Menker, both members of the Church of the Brethren, were the presenters at the workshops. They sought to help participants better understand the problems faced by returning military veterans and their families, and to consider what kinds of ministries of service and witness individuals and congregations could undertake with these families.
Doris and Mel said they were surprised when their respective sons announced that they wanted to join the military. Menker, who is senior pastor at Oak Park Church of the Brethren in Oakland, Md., said that his son’s ultimate deployment prompted him and his wife to investigate further issues related to military service. They learned that in rural counties like theirs, military service is often an economic necessity because of lack of good jobs. He learned that National Guard and Reserve soldiers and their families have fewer support resources readily available because they live at home, scattered across the country, whereas regular Army soldiers and their families are assigned to bases where support services are easy to access. One result is that the divorce rate among the Guard and Reserve is three times higher than among regular Army soldiers. The mixture of their civilian and military lives also has serious effects on veterans. Forty to fifty percent of Guard and Reserve combat veterans are diagnosed with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as compared with 30 percent of regular Army combat veterans.
Mel and his wife started a support program made up of several families in his congregation with sons or daughters having served or serving in the military. As they learned the impact on the entire three-county area, they opened up the support group to any family with loved ones in any branch of the service. The group works closely with the National Guard and receives training and other assistance for the services they offer to families. Mel’s congregation also participates in the National Guard’s Partners-In-Care program, providing a variety of services to National Guard personnel and their families including monthly support meetings, care packages, prayer services, homecomings, and working with the county commission annually to designate May as Military Support Month. Mel stressed that the observation of support is for the troops and their families, not an expression of support for the war.
Abdullah, a member of First Church of the Brethren in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that the Catholic high school her son attended sent 98 percent of its graduates to college. She never expected her son would be one of the other two percent. His interest in the military arose before 9/11, then increased in the wake of the tragedies of that day.
When her son returned after his first deployment to Iraq, Doris was surprised at the change in him. “He was no longer my baby, but a grown man.” He reacted to things to which she paid no attention, like police helicopters and streets narrowed by repairs with no ways of “escape.” Abdullah’s son went back for a second tour in Iraq, even though he did not have to go. Soon after he returned to the US a second time, Doris began thinking more about what could be done to help her son adjust. In the middle of a snowy night in New York, an idea came to her, and the Welcome Home Project was born.
Doris said we can start by praying for the soldiers we know, and tell them we are praying for them. She said that there are a lot of services they and their families could use, and emphasized that we can do even little things because they all add up quickly in the minds of these young men and women.
Mel and Doris discussed losses that young men and women suffer upon return to civilian life: loss of purpose, which the military spelled out clearly for them; lost relationships with locals left behind and “battle buddies”; loss of family time, with children growing up without them and spouses becoming more independent; loss of what to do for themselves, since the military was very good at telling them everything from when to get up, to when to go to bed, and what to do each waking hour; loss of identity, especially because the civilian population does not understand what they have gone through; loss of safety and security, which seems strange now that they are no longer in combat but in many ways is the most challenging loss. These losses can each contribute to the greater or lesser degree of PTSD. Dealing with them is no different than dealing with any loss, working through the five stages of grieving. Mel noted that this is why as many as 99 percent of veterans want to return to the military, because so much about their lives was clearer there.
University Park Church of the Brethren has begun to explore the possibility of developing a wellness center for returning veterans. Whatever project we may choose to do, we will start simple, then grow as we are able. We may explore working with a nearby Mennonite church and including other neighborhood groups. The Welcome Home Project is new to us, and it has sparked an interest and excitement among several people in our congregation.
As Jesus responded to the plea of the centurion to heal his servant, Doris and Mel encourage all of us to consider a ministry of service and witness to returning veterans and their families. Such service demonstrates our love of Christ by serving all people, even those with whom we may have strong disagreements on war.
–Dale M. Posthumus is a member of University Park Church of the Brethren in Hyattsville, Md. His reflection first appeared on the On Earth Peace website at www.brethren.org/oepa/programs/peace-witness/welcome-home-project/HealingTheTroops.html
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