Congregational Support for Ministry with Military Individuals and Families
Compiled in 2011 by the Rev. G. J. Blackburn, Chaplain, USN (Ret.), utilizing information from the Diocese of East Carolina’s MILITARY MINISTRY SUMMIT convened by Bishop Clifton Daniel Send feedback/ideas to the Rev. G.J. Blackburn.
The two “long wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to impact hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, civilian contractors and their families. Some return home with visible wounds – a shattered arm, a missing limb, etc. However, war-trauma experts tell us that many return with invisible wounds of soul and mind which are often the most difficult to spot and treat.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are among the most common wounds effecting returning troops. Sadly, in 2010 the U.S. military had more suicides (468) than deaths in combat (462). Experts say that, regardless of our personal stances toward war, faith communities can step up and become more effective in providing support for the long healing process of veterans and their families -- both those in our pews and those out in our communities who have no faith community. Peter Bauer, an ordained minister and clinical social worker at the Veterans Administration in San Antonio, TX was quoted in a recent Ecumenical News International article by G. Jeffrey MacDonald: “Churches are kind of in the dark about how to help…. But they don’t have to stay there. There are some very easy things that churches can do to be pro-active and help with this population.”
The Diocese of East Carolina is located in one of the largest – if not the largest -- military populations of any Episcopal Diocese in the USA. There are over 260,000 Active Duty (full time) personnel & family members stationed at several military installations, including two of our nation’s largest -- U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg Airborne and Special Operations Base. There are five medium-size bases including two USMC Air Stations -- Cherry Point and New River; two U.S. Air Force bases -- Pope and Seymour Johnson; a full-size Coast Guard Station at Elizabeth City and smaller stations in Wilmington, Emerald Isle, etc. Plus there are thousands of NC Reserve and National Guard members and families in East Carolina who have experienced combat deployments. And let us not overlook the civilian contractors in our area whose companies send them to Afghanistan & Iraq to help rebuild infrastructure, etc. They too may return with combat-environment related wounds.
Here are some things we can do to support the healing of the invisible and visible wounds of war:
- Two spiritual resource items & “sending forth” prayer. Before military service personnel and civilian contractors leave the congregation for deployment, present them with the “military ID/dog tag size” Episcopal Church Service Cross and the pocket-size A Prayer Book for the Armed Services (2008 ed.) This special prayer book was created by our Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries and printed by Church Publishing. Invite the individuals & their families to come forward during the liturgy (maybe just before passing The Peace) for a “sending” blessing and receiving the prayer book and service cross.
- Establish and maintain current e-mail, USPS, and mobile phone contact information with them and be sure they receive the regular newsletters, etc. from the church, including a copy of each quarterly edition of Forward Day by Day. This is one way of assuring them they are not forgotten.
- Pray. With permission of the individuals, post on a conspicuous bulletin board a world pin-map & connecting photos with the names of military & civilian contract personnel related to the congregation & the local community and include their family members’ names. Offer prayers regularly for them and let them know of this effort. Pray also for our enemies and for world peace.
- Appoint a lay leader and/or group of lay persons to serve as the congregation’s Military Outreach Team. Working with the rector and vestry this team’s mission would be to identify & practically address military-related needs of church members and others in the community who are not connected to a faith-group. Examples: (1) It may include providing simple support such as offering assistance to a spouse whose husband/wife is deployed by keeping the yard work up, helping get the kids to sports practices, dance lessons, tutoring, etc.; (2) if located near a military installation, this group could establish contact with the base chaplains as key points-of-contact for connecting troops to your welcoming Episcopal Church off-post; (3) advertise your church services in the local on-base newspaper, etc.; (4) include special prayers for troops and families, especially on the Sundays nearest Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November and consider recognizing those families during the service; (5) post a sign outside the church stating “Military Welcome Here”; (6) at least monthly, maintain contact and pray with parents and children who are concerned about their deployed loved-one’s safety overseas. (This could be done via an in-home visit or over lunch, by telephone, e-mail, or USPS mail); (7) form a support group for family members and close loved-ones of those deployed in harm’s way and/or for those who have sons, daughters, spouses home from combat and dealing with visible and invisible war wounds.
- Reintegration support. When they return home on leave or from deployment or when discharged from military service, invite them to take part in the liturgy. They might be publicly welcomed back, read a lesson or lead the Prayers of the People, etc. (VA Hospital clinical social worker & combat veteran Peter Bauer, says “contemplative worship liturgies [such as those offered by Episcopal Church, ELCA (Lutheran), or Roman Catholic congregations] are often preferred by veterans returning from the stress of combat [rather than] contemporary services involving loud bands and bright lights which can trigger anxious reactions.” Persons returning from combat may be recuperating from a physical injury but quite likely will be dealing with some level of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) which, if not successfully dealt with, can evolve into full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Supportive care of these individuals and their loved ones can be a crucial part of their healing and reintegration into their family, the church, and the community.
- Physical and Mental Health resources. Part of the support might be something as simple as encouraging them to connect with the resources available aboard the nearest military installation or at the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Fayetteville, 2300 Ramsey St, (910) 488-2120; and the important on-going, follow-up care at one of the six VA Outpatient Clinics located in East Carolina: (1) Wilmington; (2) Jacksonville (Midway Park); (3) Morehead City; (4) Elizabeth City; (5) Greenville; and (6) Hamlet. NOTE: In most cases, individuals must first go to the Fayetteville VAMC in-take program before they can access help at one of the outpatient clinics.
- Jobs, jobs, jobs! Help those returning from deployments to find employment. Regretfully when military members return – especially National Guard and Reserve military personnel, but also Active Duty members who are being discharged -- sometimes have difficulty finding employment. Even though protected by law from losing the job they were in when they left for combat, sometimes the company or individual they worked for has relocated far away or has “gone under” financially. Also, if the individual was self-employed prior to being deployed, he/she may find many obstacles, especially in our present economic environment, in reestablishing their career. Churches can provide encouragement, prayer, referrals and other practical support.