Long-separated military families will soon reunite as another wave of combat veterans return from Afghanistan. However, for many of these families, reuniting will be the beginning of a difficult period of transition and readjustment for both the soldier and family.
After seeing death and carnage close up, many combat veterans develop post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. According to the National Institute of Health, PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse or other anxiety disorders. Soldiers with the disorder often have trouble reconnecting with family and friends. They often become irritable, aggressive and addicted to alcohol or drugs to help them cope with their condition. About one out of five Iraqi war veterans has PTSD, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
“It’s important that local churches step up their awareness and willingness to engage the sometimes traumatic experience of being a human being,” Chaplain Matthew Stevens said. He is a Candler Theological Seminary alumnus who serves as a military chaplain and focuses on counseling traumatized service members.
Stevens serves at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., on a multidisciplinary care team in the Traumatic and Operational Stress Services Clinic. He calls on religious communities to reach out to service members in their congregations who may not have had the opportunity to get counseling before returning home.
“If we as the church don’t deal directly with trauma, loss and fear, it calls into question our belief in resurrection. The church needs to provide the space and safety for people to be heard, so that the church can grow in fullness with them,” he said.
Often, soldiers return home to a family that has become accustomed to functioning without his or her presence. “Both parties have been through odysseys of their own,” writes Chaplain John Morris, an Army chaplain who writes extensively on PTSD. “Both have been stretched, challenged, overwhelmed and pushed to the limits of their endurance.”
Morris agrees with Stevens that religious communities should develop a unique ministry to serve returning veterans with PTSD and their families.
Start by becoming a military family friendly congregation, he suggested. Welcome home returning soldiers and acknowledge them and their families from the pulpit or in the weekly bulletin, Morris recommends. Offer to babysit the children so couples have time to readjust to each other.
Many soldiers remain silent about their psychological pain. Consequently, they don’t reach out for help. “Because a soldier and his or her family show up for Sunday worship regularly doesn’t mean everything is going well with their integration,” Morris warned. “Check in with them periodically and watch for signs of distress.”
Some of the signs include depression, withdrawal, anger and long periods of joblessness, Morris explained. He added that children often are the first family members to reveal a hint of trouble. “Pay attention to what they are saying and doing,” he advised. “By expressing concern and opening the door for support, the church is offering the combat veteran the opportunity to receive help, healing and hope.”
Traumatic stress disorder is more commonplace that most people realize. Numerous people who have never been in military combat but experienced some sort of trauma (such as rape or abuse) have this disorder. Therefore, there will continue to be a need for the type of traumatic stress disorder ministry that the chaplains describe—long after troops have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stevens noted that PTSD is a human thing, not just a military thing. So dealing with it is the province of all in ministry, not just military chaplains, he added.