The road home from war is longer, steeper, and often more challenging than the road to war for most soldiers and their families. After the joyful, long anticipated reunions there is a difficult period of transition, readjustment, and hard work ahead for every soldier and his or her family. The church can be a helpful partner in the process.
Recent studies reviewed in the June 2004 New England Journal of Medicine reveal that as many as 18 percent of returning combat veterans struggle with significant mental health issues upon returning home. Department of Defense medical authorities now state that as many as 30 percent of returning Army Reserve and Guard members struggle with significant mental health issues four to six months after returning from combat. These studies highlight the need for the church to be a partner in the complex readjustment process of returning soldiers and their families.
The first place for the church to start in becoming a helpful partner in the readjustment process is to gain an understanding of what the soldier and his family face when they reunite. Both parties have been through odysseys of their own. Both have been stretched, challenged, overwhelmed, and pushed to the limits of their endurance.
The families have learned to fill the void left by the soldiers. New roles have been assumed and sometimes mastered. New rules have taken effect. Money has been managed by the family without the soldier's direct input. New skills have been gained, experiences had, and friendships made. The soldier is returning to the same family but a newer model. The soldier's role in the family may have changed, and the family may not even be aware of it.
The soldier is returning from a life of danger to a life of uncertainty. In combat the military guided and provided. In civilian life the soldier will have to live by a complex code. In combat the soldier bonded with a few; in civilian life the soldier will be expected to interact with a myriad of networks of people: family, friends, co-workers, relatives, etc. In combat the soldier was "safe" within the confines of the forward operating base and the company, squad, or team. At home the soldier will often feel vulnerable, not sure where he/she is "safe and secure."
The soldier will experience alienation because of the unique experiences (both good and bad) of combat and the inability to adequately express those experiences to those who haven't been there. The soldier may feel that friends and co-workers have "leapt ahead" while he/she was "frozen in time." Others have gone to school, married, been promoted, learned new skills, and advanced in their careers, while the soldier is faced with trying to "catch up" in a world that the combat veteran may feel he/she is out of sync with.
All of this adds up to offering the church a very unique ministry in helping combat veterans and their families. With understanding comes the opportunity to minister. I suggest the following steps for any church that wants to help combat veterans and their families.
1. Make yourself a "military-friendly" church. That doesn't mean that you have to support the U.S. foreign policy or promote war. It does mean that you are willing to see members of the military as you see any other distressed population in your parish. Members of the military have volunteered for a very difficult avenue of service, and their families share in the sacrifice. Jesus ministered to soldiers, and his church has the opportunity to do the same.