Before and After the Reunion: Pastoral Care in a Time of WarWritten by Dr. Jim Higginbotham
After the Reunion
The airport hugs and yellow ribbons paint a deceptively sanguine picture of veterans returning home: the worry is over; they're home alive; let the celebration begin! All of this is true, in part. However, too soon after the joyous reunion begins a process that is usually more difficult than coping with the separation. While away from each other, everyone mostly tried to survive and muddle through the emotional and spiritual challenges from living on different continents in unfamiliar circumstances. Now, all that was left behind before the war – good and bad – and all that happened in between will have to be sorted out. Many vets and their families find that the adjustment returning home takes longer and is more taxing than the months or years apart.
There has been tremendous stress on the loved ones here and the soldier abroad. The family has had a hole in it, even while they worried whether the deployed spouse/partner, parent, child, or sibling would safely return. But life has gone on! There have been personal or family crises, relocation or financial pressures, along with expected feelings like loneliness. Some members of the family may have even experienced a sense of abandonment.
Families of veterans have changed, perhaps not as much as the soldier her/himself, but enough that they may be experienced as surprisingly new by the returnee. The spouse/partner has had to adjust to the absence by filling the void. New roles have been assumed, since the responsibilities of family life like paying bills, parenting, and making difficult decisions were done without much (if any) of the soldier's involvement. There may be a strong desire to return quickly to a normal life, but the old life can't be recaptured. Everyone will have to adapt and it may feel like starting anew.
Even if a vet returns physically unscathed, the pressures and horrors of war can be debilitating. People see and do things in combat that are unimaginable to those who have not experienced a war zone. The June 2004 New England Journal of Medicine indicates that as many as 18% of returning combat veterans battle depression and other significant mental health issues when they return. Some degree of irritability, nervousness, sleep problems, tiredness, or moodiness is to be expected. If they persist for more than a month or are unmanageable, the vet should be persuaded to get a medical check-up. The serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are identifiable – recurring nightmares, flashbacks, or déjà vu and exaggerated responses (e.g., startle or emotional outbursts) to cues of combat – but don't intimate the diagnosis unless it's been made by a professional. There are many more reasons for referrals: substance abuse, explosive outbursts, sexual dysfunction, becoming emotionally shut-down, chronic headaches, and domestic violence to name the most common ones.
Pastoral Care to the Families of Returning Troops
Faith communities are in a unique position to offer care to military personnel and their loved ones. In many cases, we share a history with the family that helps us understand the broader concerns they are facing. The returning soldier has been living in a close knit group. A similar sense of support and camaraderie derived from a congregation may (but not necessarily) feel nurturing, though in smaller doses than the unit back in Iraq or Afghanistan. The single vet is particularly vulnerable to a sense of isolation.
The resources of our faith can serve a vital role in compassionate care to those affected by war. Communal worship may serve as a reminder of the presence of God who has seemed absent and of the bonds the family shares. Helping veterans and their loved ones work through the theological issues of war and peace is an often forgotten aspect of pastoral care. Many have conflicting feelings and thoughts about patriotism, the justice of the war, and what they or their loved ones did while overseas. This is not a subject that can be pushed, but caregivers can offer to listen. Rituals of forgiveness, love (e.g. renewal of marriage vows), and grace powerfully embody many of the spiritual needs of these families.
Communication, flexibility, and patience are essential, for the families (and the congregation attempting to offer care). The veteran and his/her loved ones can be encouraged to explore what they have learned, including about themselves. This can be a delicate issue since combat experiences are difficult to discuss. Sometimes brief counsel is needed to facilitate such conversations, if the pastor or other leaders of the congregation are sufficiently trained. When talking to couples, remember that problems that existed before deployment probably haven't disappeared and may have intensified. Thus, spouses or partners have to try to sort through layers of issues and not assume they're all about the war. Individual coping mechanisms that worked during separation are an important new resource even though they may seem like a threat to the other person.
The children of veterans returning from combat face unique challenges, which often require interpretation and referral. Infants and toddlers may have forgotten the parent who's been gone: they may pull away from the returning parent and cling to familiar caregivers. Older children frequently retain guilt from the initial separation. The returning parent doesn't know the recent history and may not recognize positive changes that have occurred. Parent(s) and kids will have to work to reestablish relationships and lines of communication; it is like constituting a new family.
Before the Reunion
Needless to say, there are families in most congregations and communities that are impacted by U.S military involvement overseas. A child or spouse/partner whose loved one is deployed requires many of same kinds of support that orphaned or widowed families need, even though everyone is hoping for a safe return. Public prayers and announcements in bulletins are important rituals that affirm the worth of the troops and offer comfort to their families.
Yet, some churches hesitate to memorialize deaths if they're not directly connected to the congregation or to openly name deployed military for fear of appearing to take a stance on an unpopular war. Our prophetic witness is not in contradiction with Christ's commandment to love our neighbor. The Good Samaritan provided succor to someone with whom he wouldn't worship or agree about many matters of faith. Even though many in a congregation have marched against the war and it would never hang a plaque honoring veterans in the fellowship hall, that doesn't negate the responsibility to support veterans and their families. Many of the homeless in this country are former military personnel. Sadly, those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming homeless at higher rates than ever before, even Viet Nam. Consequently, pastoral care to returning troops is an act of social ministry, which may help to prevent the deterioration of the very neighborhood in which we worship.
Prayers for soldiers killed and for innocent victims of war also serve as a reminder that a community of faith must compassionately and faithfully engage a world full of tragedy, violence, and politics. To ignore the war also overlooks the spiritual and emotional needs of congregants and broader community members: 5 years of conflict have created stress on everyone!
Therefore, now is when churches should be talking and praying about how to minister in a time of war. Since a single congregation can't create a community of care, this is an opportunity for interfaith cooperation and networking with public resources like the Red Cross, the VA, and local chaplains from the Reserve and military. We also shouldn't forget that troops are being newly deployed every month. Faith Communities must seek out veterans and their families, because too often they feel isolated from groups who may oppose the war or not respect military service. Congregations can even create forums in which the impact, not the reasons for war, is the topic. Veterans hesitate to talk about their combat experiences, but they need to know that when they and their families are ready they don't have to face those nightmares alone.
Jose Narosky wrote that, "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers." Perhaps that should be expanded: we are all harmed by the ravages of our country's wars. The Church is called to minister in such a time as this!
A Lutheran journal on "Pastoral Care among Returning Veterans":
http://caringconnectionsonline.org/ Fall 2007
A website by the Minnesota National Guard for helping returning troops:
A Red Cross guide to healthy family reunions:
The Army's guide to "Ministering to Families Affected by Military Deployment":
 This term, according to widespread usage, refers to a member of any of the Armed Forces rather than just the Army. When interacting with a particular veteran, try to use the appropriate designation: soldier, marine, sailor, etc.