When the War Never Ends
Skyway's approach represents a positive and growing trend among U.S. churches in addressing PTSD—a change that's been a long time coming.
"The church dropped the ball on our generation," says Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer Frank Vozenilek. "We cannot afford to drop the ball on this one." Today, Vozenilek and Knudsen assist churches in the Cedar Rapids/Marion, Iowa, area in meeting the needs of veterans with PTSD.
Helping wounded warriors
The local church is a particularly critical resource for veterans who served in the National Guard and Reservists, who do not have access to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals and centers. Even those with VA access aren't necessarily taking advantage of it; only about 30 percent of those reporting they have PTSD go to VA hospitals or centers for help.
As more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, churches are standing in the gap. Times Square Church in New York City is one of more than 100 churches across the country trained to minister to vets by Bridges to Healing, a branch of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry.
"Even if the despair, grief, guilt, anger, irritability, withdrawal, addiction, and impulsive behavior is not labeled as PTSD, it is severely impacting soldiers' transitions home," says Bill Butler, director of Times Square's military ministry. "One by one, we will encounter the returning, wounded warriors and reach out to them." One of the many services Times Square offers is regular gatherings for veterans in which they can develop friendships and share stories.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) passed a resolution in 2007 to support returning veterans and their families, and the ELCA Minneapolis Area Synod developed the Coming Home Collaborative for those concerned with the psychological and spiritual healing of veterans.
Even churches without programmatic ministries are meeting the needs of those with PTSD. The North Carolina church home of Monica and Scott Langdon (whose names have been changed for confidentiality) has no official ministry, but a church member reached out to Monica while she and Scott, an Iraq veteran, were separated due to PTSD-related marital stress.
"While I was suffering from depression and anxiety, one woman at our church brought me food, watched my daughter, and even spent the night when I was feeling completely overwhelmed," says Monica. "She had no idea what PTSD was until I told her. But I knew that I could call her anytime, night or day, and she would drop whatever she was doing and pray with me on the phone. She reminded me often how much she loved me and my husband no matter how bleak the situation seemed, and that God's sovereign plan would always unfold in my life." Monica adds that vets with PTSD "often feel as though no one who has not gone through combat can understand them.
"But it's a very real disorder," Monica says. "It's not something where you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it."
Lightening the load
Retired U.S. Navy seal Mark Waddell says his church was "absolutely oblivious" to his family's desperation when he was dealing with PTSD, but that a fellow member, Sue McMillin, offered very practical help: She spent seven hours helping him clear his garage, which was full of boxes of military gear left untouched since Mark had returned from combat in Iraq.
"Mark could not bring himself to open the bags and boxes because of the weight of the memories," says his wife, Marshelé Carter Waddell."He was avoiding all the triggers that lurked inside—sand and dirt from the desert, mud and blood on his boots. So the garage continued to be a negative thing in his life. With Sue's help, we hauled away a truck bed full of paraphernalia and clothing, and reorganized and labeled all the plastic tubs."