Ministering to Returning Soldiers

Posted: December 4, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Christ & Culture, Discipleship/Sanctification, From the Heart, Missional Thought, Suffering

Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a great episode of Speaking of Faith, originally from 2006.  Krista Tippett interviewed Chaplain Major John Morris about his role in ministering to soldiers during and after war (listen to the program or read the transcript here).  He started out with a very evocative description of Easter 2004 in Fallujah:

Maj. Morris: I was at a camp with the Marines, the 1st Marine Division. I was supporting Army special operations soldiers, psychological operations soldiers, who were supporting the 1st Marine Division as they began to lay siege to and take down that city. At Camp Blue Diamond, it’s the headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, and we had an early sunrise service, which actually was dangerous because the camp was being mortared occasionally. But, nonetheless, the Marines showed up in great strength, with a few Army personnel there.

And I celebrated with Father Devine, the 1st Marine Division Roman Catholic priest. And it was particularly memorable because, you know, it was the only service I’ve ever conducted where we were — we all knew that, by the end of the day, people who were worshipping in that service would no longer be on this planet. And so we talked about the hope of the Resurrection with a sense of fervency and urgency that I had never experienced before.

The walls of the chapel were adorned with posters with the name of every Marine that had been wounded in the Anbar province, and every Marine that had been killed. And I couldn’t help but think of that verse in Hebrew[s], as it talked about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. You know, we were, and we knew that very quickly many of us could be on that wall.

So there was a sense of joy, and expectancy, and dread all meld [sic] together. All the Marines had their weapons. They were ready to go out on their mission. The place was packed. It was loud, as Marines can be. It was a participatory service. It was a beautiful, sacred privilege. And the service ended. And I went on my way to do my rounds of conducting Easter services for Marines and Army personnel all over that area. So it was an amazing time. A lot of Marines were killed, a lot of Army soldiers killed.

Morris gave a perspective on soldiers’ lives from a close perspective, which is welcome amid the rampant politicization of our wars by politicians and political media.  To me, it’s become clear that our political discourse has very little space for soldiers’ actual experiences.  The soldiers must be righteous executors of a righteous foreign policy (for supporters of the wars), victims (for mainstream opponents of the wars), or criminals (for far left opponents of the wars).  It’s sad that very few seem to be really interested in understanding what soldiers go through, but instead seem more interested in using the soldiers as political props.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in any of those characterizations for a real human experience in war.

To lay my cards on the table, I believed that the Afghan war was justified in 2001, although I don’t know what to think now.  I opposed the Iraq war in 2003.  Although there have certainly been egregious actions committed by the soldiers from time to time, I have to say that I very much admire the military men and women’s patriotism and commitment to fighting as humanely and justly as possible in two awful, nasty, largely unconventional wars.  By and large, it seems to me that our military strives to fight the wars justly even if I’m not convinced that the wars themselves are just (which, in a civilian-controlled military, isn’t in the soldiers’ power to decide).

Morris is a United Methodist minister and now runs a program in Minnesota to help National Guardsmen, who have served and sacrificed much in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to reintegrate into society.  He said that the active duty soldiers have an intentional reintegration program, whereas soldiers in the National Guard don’t have any such program.  He argues because war is inherently terrible, it doesn’t do the soldiers any good to ignore the fact that they are asked to kill, which is spiritually damaging.  He wants churches to step up and minister to returning soldiers.

For churches tempted to sidestep this reality of war, he and Krista talked about the importance of recognizing it:

Ms. Tippett: It seems to me that in congregations, where the choice is to support the war and to welcome our military personnel back as heroes, even there that healing might not take place because there might not be that nuanced acknowledgment still of what a difficult and damaging experience that is, even if it is deemed to be morally right.

Maj. Morris: Yes, you’re right. And we don’t have a lot of rituals, and we need one for this….

In Medieval days, in some parts of Europe, the priest would go with the soldiers, raised from the villages to go fight, and you know, hear their confession prior to going to battle, give them last rites, and send them to war. So that’s a very stark psychology. ‘Hey, you may die, so we need to make things right with God.’ Then when they came home, they were stopped before they entered the village. The village went out to meet them. They were not allowed in the village. Stripped off their clothes that they had fought in, bathed, heard confession again, celebrated the Eucharist, and then allowed back in the village. Now, what were they saying there? ‘You know, there needs to be some business done with God and with the community prior to allowing you to rejoin us. We need to leave the old out here.’

On the other hand, we have what Morris calls the “Dr. Phil culture,” where “having personal pain and trauma” is rewarded.  In contrast to this culture, Morris says,

And the military, you know, heroism’s a sacrament. It’s a virtue. It’s something unbelievable to see somebody exhibit. And we honor it highly. And so what it tends to do is it alienates us even further. We’re part of a subculture in America that values things the general culture doesn’t seem to be as interested in. And that puzzles us, and so it creates, again, that sense of alienation, that ‘Hey, where I was really most vital and alive was when I was with my combat buddies, and we were executing our mission. When I come back here, people want to treat me like a victim.’ ‘There must be something wrong with you, because you went to combat.’…

I often say this in our community reintegration training. Make — see if this resonates with what you just said. I say to people, you know, this is a volunteer army. This is not your father’s army….

And it may shock you, as citizens, to know that the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who are going to war, chose to do this. And in fact, the vast majority in theater, while they don’t like being away from home, they don’t like the danger, they believe this is what the nation needs them to be doing. And we used to call that noble. And now, we don’t seem to have a word for that. Back in the ’80s, there was a term “weekend warrior,” and there was a myth that said if you called the Guard and Reserve, they won’t come. Well, you know, there hasn’t [sic] been any mass desertions. There have not been any units that failed to come. That’s an underreported story.

Interestingly enough, Morris says that the Veterans Administration informed him that “since 9/11, the biggest upsurge in customers for them is World War II-generation veterans.”  He quotes one veteranwho says that the soldiers were encouraged to get back to regular life after coming back from the war.   As Morris generalizes, “they didn’t have a language to discuss it. So many people had experienced it that they silently bore the agony.”

There’s a lot more in the interview, and I think that it would be valuable listening or reading for anyone involved in ministering to soldiers or who has returning soldiers coming to his or her church.  Here’s a final excerpt that talks about the faith patterns of soldiers that Morris witnessed:

Stephen Mansfield’s written a great book called The Faith of the American Soldier. And he chronicles what he saw in Iraq, the same time I was there. I think he got it very, very well. What I saw in Iraq, and I ended up my tour of duty in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But what I saw in my combat experience — and I’ve seen through my 22 years — is on the battlefield, using crude numbers, a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of their faith. A third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic. And that’s, that religion on the battlefield bears a lot of looking at. The other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Maj. Morris: And many would say to me, very bluntly, ‘I’ve lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away,’ or ‘I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people. And if there’s a good God, He wouldn’t let that to happen. So I do not want to believe anymore.’ The guys I worried about, that were fatalistic, were people who had really hardened in their soul. And they had what I would call the thousand-yard stare, the classic combat look of a fatigued soldier. And they were droning through each day not thinking too far ahead and not being retrospectful.

To look ahead meant you had to have hope for future. To look within meant you had to deal with the pain and the challenge. Too much energy to expend that, you know, to do that, so they wouldn’t do that. And they had seen so much chaos, and war is chaos. You could do everything right and still die. And you see that on a regular basis. And that’s so counter to American philosophy where the good guys win in the end. And if you do everything right, you’re rewarded.

Ms. Tippett: Right. At least, the movie philosophy.

Maj. Morris: Sure. And here, you know, a guy that’s barefoot, with an AK-47, can kill the best and the bravest soldier, or a mortar round can fire inexplicably into your PX and kill innocent people. It’s chaotic. And that chaos seems to so harden people into saying, ‘I can’t think about transcendent things. Nobody’s in control. The only thing I can control is the space around me right now. And whatever is is. And whatever will be will be. And I’m not going to worry about it, so don’t bother me with anything transcendent or eternal.’ Now the thing that really throws the, a wrench into all of this is being shot at by people who were praying a few minutes earlier in a sacred place, and who may be shooting you out of that sacred place.

Ms. Tippett: Hmm.

Maj. Morris: That really hardens some people to say, ‘I don’t know what kind of God you all are talking about, but I don’t want to have anything to do with any kind of God that uses the sacred to condone this. And so I don’t want to deal with any of you people that have anything to do with religion, because you guys are causing the wars of the world today.’

I don’t know where Morris falls along the theological spectrum.  From the interview, I suspect that he is moderate to liberal in his theology.  Whatever our theological differences, his perspective seems like a good starting point for those called to minister to soldiers.  And with the wars continuing on, there are going to be many who need churches to reach out to them not as cardboard-cutout heroes or victims, but as fellow human beings who have seen a side of life and death that many of us have not.  Lord, please equip your people to minister to returning soldiers.

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Comments
  1. Scott, I amen your closing charge:
    “Whatever our theological differences, his perspective seems like a good starting point for those called to minister to soldiers. And with the wars continuing on, there are going to be many who need churches to reach out to them not as cardboard-cutout heroes or victims, but as fellow human beings who have seen a side of life and death that many of us have not. Lord, please equip your people to minister to returning soldiers.”

    I also appreciated your analysis:
    “To me, it’s become clear that our political discourse has very little space for soldiers’ actual experiences. The soldiers must be righteous executors of a righteous foreign policy (for supporters of the wars), victims (for mainstream opponents of the wars), or criminals (for far left opponents of the wars). It’s sad that very few seem to be really interested in understanding what soldiers go through, but instead seem more interested in using the soldiers as political props. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in any of those characterizations for a real human experience in war.”

    It is sad but true the things you say. Just so you know, I pray for the armed forces and their families regularly in our congregational prayer.

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    That’s great that you keep the military and their families in prayer. Do you have members of your congregation who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    • There are none that I’m aware of. I would definitely reach out to those who have returned from the field. I would not try to be a shrink, but a fellow brother in Christ and make myself available to talk about anything that they should wish to discuss. I would push the envelope on a couple issues which may impact their homelife, but that would be it. Do you know any vets?

  3. Scott Kistler says:

    We’ve had a couple in our Twenties and Thirties group at church, although one moved away with his new wife and another hasn’t been coming lately. Our conversation reminded me about her and I’m going to send her an e-mail to check in. There is a military ministry at our church, but I don’t know what programs we have for returning soldiers.

    It seems like this kind of ministry is something that really has to be intentional and calls for a commitment on the part of a church and its people.

    • yeah, definite commitment. with smaller churches, I would like to think that pastors-elders-lay leaders can extend pastoral care. I wouldn’t like the idea of a specified ministry per se as I think it is healthy for returning soldiers to assimilate as a fellow member in the body and not fall subject to the pressures of being the hero among the Church.

  4. Scott Kistler says:

    Hmm, I didn’t think about that. It makes sense that a special group could actually make people stand out rather than fully including them.

    • yeah, I’ve been starting to question the whole programmatic paradigm as a strategy to minister to people with specific needs. I see pros and cons and trying to resolve some things in my own mind as we tend to our Church as elders.

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