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How to Treat Veterans in Your Church
How to Treat Veterans in Your Church

This Sunday was only the eighth time, in the 54 years that it has been celebrated, that Veterans Day fell on a Sunday. It was also the first Sunday after a long and vitriolic campaign, so the observance probably passed unnoticed in many pulpits and congregations. But Veterans Day often passes unnoticed in non-election years, too—just as veterans' needs and experiences are often overlooked in churches throughout the year.

Veterans are everywhere; we stand behind you in the grocery store line, sit next to you in class, and worship beside you in church every week. What we have in common with one another is not always the easiest bond to understand. Some say the martial fraternity is made up of courage, tenacity, and strength. To be sure, what I saw in my own combat deployment in 2004 reflected heights of human charity I've failed to witness before or since; soldiers standing in the line of fire for one another, risking their lives for civilians and comrades alike.

But there is another trait we veterans hold tragically in common. In 2009, CBS conducted a study that found over 17 veterans killed themselves every day (they also explain the numbers), a rate higher than any other recorded in our nation's history. More recently, it was found that current members of the United States military were taking their own lives at a rate of one every day, itself another tragic statistical record of epic proportions. Suicide is currently the leading cause of death among our troops, those men and women we ask God to bless.

It is a partial truth to say that the martial fraternity is held together by common virtues. As evidenced by those startling statistics, the other half of that truth is that we hold in common feelings of mental and spiritual despair that can lead to suicidal ideation and self-harm. Just this past Election Day, when we exercised the gift of democratic process that military members of the past helped ensure, 17 veterans and one service member took their own lives. It happened yesterday, the day on which we are called to express our gratitude for their service, a service less than 1 percent of the American population is willing to shoulder. And it will happen again today, as banks and other offices continue to observe Veterans Day.

As Christians, we have a dual call; not just to recognize people for their good deeds but to help reconcile people to their loving Creator. Pastors, priests, and other religious leaders who have been called to ministry have veterans in their midst and must minister to their unique needs. Here are some ideas, from a veteran who has seen both successes and failures. Some all of them might not translate directly to your own congregation, but I hope they germinate and sprout more ideas.

1.Do not "out" veterans in your congregation.To honor the veterans in your congregation, think twice before asking veterans to stand during the service. To be sure, military service is to be celebrated. But much of it also needs to be mourned; doing the things that must be done in war takes a heavy emotional and spiritual toll. By asking veterans to identify themselves, you risk exposing wounds that need tending, not just heroes who deserve to be celebrated. Listen carefully to your congregation and discern care individually; what works for one veteran (like being recognized for their service) can be harmful for another (who might have had to commit necessary evil and whose conscience has not yet been reconciled). And find ways to both celebrate and mourn the realities of military duty in corporate worship.

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How to Treat Veterans in Your Church