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Russ Ferguson: Making space for veterans

Many of the nation’s veterans are in desperate need of community, and the church should welcome and help them, says a Navy chaplain.

iStock/Jason Swarr

February 12, 2013

As a Navy chaplain serving a USMC infantry battalion, I listen to heartbreaking and disturbing stories every day.

Marines and sailors who have killed people in battle struggle with their feelings. Some tell me about childhood sexual trauma. Others recount violent crimes they’ve committed for which they have never been held to account. Often they tell me about turning to alcohol and drugs when their illusion of invincibility is shattered.

These stories are not easy to hear. But after returning from a combat deployment in Afghanistan last year, I’ve become convinced that the church needs to hear them.

Not every congregation has the resources or a calling to work with veterans. But as a Christian community, we need to be there for those veterans seeking us. We need to find ways to connect with this group, which is in desperate need of community.

One important service congregations can provide for these men and women is to offer a sacred space where they can talk openly about their conflicted emotions -- even when it makes those around them uncomfortable.

Discomfort is scary and difficult. But discomfort allows the space for grace to enter into someone’s life. Can you listen with love to someone sitting next to you when he speaks of killing another human being?

Grace is powerful with big, tough Marines. They hide their brokenness well, but it is there below the surface. Many of them come from backgrounds in which they didn’t receive much grace, and the military isn’t a repository of grace-giving individuals.

In a world where a mistake can mean the death of a friend, grace gets pushed aside as a weakness. As a Christian chaplain, I represent grace within the military. However, chaplains can’t be the only spiritual support in the life of a service member.

Because of the transitory nature of service and the fact that more than 70 percent of military members serve less than six years, our impact on these young wanderers has limits. While chaplains may participate in a moment of beauty that provides a spark of hope, veterans will spend the majority of their lives as civilians who served, and they will seek much-needed grace within your congregations.

Formal support services for both active-duty members and veterans are inadequate. I am the sole provider of spiritual care for more than 1,000 military members and their families at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has an overwhelming backlog of war-related disability claims -- according to one estimate, veterans have to wait more than eight months for a decision about their claims. And a recent study showed that the rate of suicide among veterans is even higher than previously thought: 22 veterans kill themselves every day. The Christian community can step in with little cost other than time, space and a sympathetic ear. Prayers and thoughts on Sundays are always appreciated, but congregations can do much more.

Churches would be amazed at the response a welcoming attitude can generate. While I was deployed, I listened as a young Marine told me about killing an insurgent by purposely running the man over with a military vehicle. A devout Christian, he needed to talk through what had happened. The most important part of our conversation wasn’t what I said but that I was the only one who was ready to listen to his story without judgment or morbid curiosity.

Churches can play a similar role. Let veterans and active-duty military members tell their stories in a place where they know they will be loved and accepted. Some will want to repent for war; some will not be seeking forgiveness at all. You may not agree with their actions or choices, but you can help them deal with what they have experienced.

Hosting VA seminars to explain the agency’s services and benefits is a practical way to serve this community. The VA’s Rural Clergy Training Program is a wonderful but underused program designed to connect churches in rural areas with veterans.

Even small gestures can make a difference. In my unit, the simple act of placing a bowl of candy by my door invites Marines and sailors to stop by and say hello and sends a signal that my office is a refuge.

My Marines on deployment loved reading letters from across the country, especially handmade cards from children. This reminded them of whom they serve and provided joy and hope in difficult circumstances. I brought two such cards back and have them taped to a wall in my office today.

Contact your denomination’s chaplain-endorsing agency to connect with your chaplains serving on active duty, in the reserves or at VA hospitals. My denomination’s endorser is a vital source of strength for me and works hard to serve as my chaplain while also sharing my story with my denomination.

Perhaps the most important thing a congregation can offer veterans is a renewed sense of community. Those who have served know what it means to have a group of people that cares about them -- and how a caring community can help them overcome almost any burden.

These bonds aren’t created easily. On deployment, it was only after I had spent 10 days sleeping in snow and freezing rain alongside my Marines that they finally began to trust me. None of them ever told me I was now part of the group, but they acknowledged it by seeking me out for advice and counseling.

As I said, not every congregation will sense a call to minister to veterans. However, if we truly seek to embrace Matthew 25 and show grace, we must find ways to extend that grace to every person we encounter, including veterans.

My Marines and sailors are used to asking and answering difficult questions about life and faith, and they desire a spiritual home when they leave active duty. It is up to us as the church to provide a place of healing and hope for them.