“I tell you the truth, I have not seen faith like this in all the land of Israel.”
Jesus makes this emphatic statement about the faith of a Roman Centurion, a warrior.
“On the day I cried out, you answered me. You encouraged me with inner strength.”
This Psalm by David reveals the importance of faith for another warrior
Faith and the Armed Forces
Faith, defined as confidence, trust, belief, reliance, loyalty, commitment, and dedication, is central to the character of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Guardians. Whether it is the commitment to one’s country, belief in the mission, loyalty to one’s battle buddy, reliance in training, or trust in God, faith has significance for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Much of what we hear in American society today is related to veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Politicians, media, and advocacy groups have recently focused on our veterans who return from war wounded and are having difficulties adjusting to civilian life. Still, many veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD contribute importantly and effectively in their communities.
Also, it seems that American society has labeled our veterans as either heroes or broken. Neither of these considerations brings us close to understanding our veterans and their challenges.
For me, understanding our veterans and the challenges they face centers around faith.
A spiritual crisis
War’s violence evokes questions of faith. When a warrior steps onto the battlefield he or she is immediately confronted by the kinds of hardships and horror that have moved humanity through the centuries to reach for the Holy. The battlefield becomes a test of the soul.
Returning veterans often face a deep spiritual crisis, unknown to the casual observer.
There is a cadence that we use in the Army when marching or running in formation. “When I get to hell Satan’s gonna say, how’d you earn your livin’ how’d you earn your pay. I replied with a boot to his chest, earned my living laying souls to rest.”
It is paradoxical that countless warriors describe the dark side of their war experience with the word – hell.
Many veterans put a lid on their hell and suffer a hellish experience alone that further deteriorates their relationships.
Soul wounds feel like hell that strikes at the core of the warrior’s well-being. The experiences may lead to confusion about God, or a shattered faith in God, others, and one’s self.
I lived through hell while serving in Iraq.
From mid-December 2003 until the second week of February 2004, I experienced four near-death events.
I returned from war changed. For a period of time I exhibited the spiritual symptoms of soul wounds; shattered self-esteem, found it difficult to pray, had no spirit of thankfulness, saw no value in the Scripture.
People of faith can be changed by trauma. They may be so wounded by the violence of war that they lose their faith or adopt destructive behavior as an escape of war.
Many warriors have lingering fear and guilt from their experiences. Some struggle with ethical and moral challenges. Severe soul wounding can result in a diminishment of everything meaningful and a loss of faith in God.
War is a gross result of human failure – sin. The violence and brutality point to our inhumanity. Even if the outcome may bring peace, the broken and shattered lives along the way become a reminder the impact on those who have engaged war’s harsh realities. As a result, many warriors experience grievous wounds to their souls.
How can the returning veteran journey toward healing of the wounded soul?
It took me 10 years on a long spiritual quest to find healing. That process included repentance, forgiveness, mourning, lamenting, and reconciliation.
I shared my story with several who understand the sacred story and they listened without judgment. Additionally, as I began to develop the Soul Care Initiative, a ministry with veterans and families, I looked beyond my own soul wounds into the needs of others. This has had a deep healing power.
I am still on the journey and the church has been a partner.
The role of church
The church is no stranger to such spiritual quests.
Here are some important factors for clergy, lay leadership and congregations to consider:
The journey toward healing may begin with repentance and forgiveness. Some veterans do not like the person they have become and are stuck in guilt and shame. Some carry deep rage – reasoning they can never forgive or be forgiven. Some veterans do not realize they need forgiveness until much later. Therefore, forgiveness from violence or trauma can be complicated and elusive. The church has a rich liturgy and traditions that can be offered to the veteran.
Another critical step in the veteran’s spiritual journey may be remembering and grieving. Survival and the mission come first while in harm’s ways grief and memorializing get put on hold. The warrior may find comfort in remembering and solace in mourning the loss of friends, or safety, or physical health, or possibly their faith. Lamentations, such as the Psalms can help one know that lament is being totally honest with God and can provide a path through the pain.
There is power in story. The warrior’s story is “sacred.” Members of the church can be a great resource through compassionate listening. The church can live out the sacred story through the liturgy during worship, following spiritual disciplines, and using the seasons within the church calendar.
Often, it is in service to others that the veteran begins to see the positive connection with others, and see this as a restorative path. Members of our congregations include companion veterans and families of veterans that can be key links in this ministry.
The church is uniquely positioned to give attention to the spiritual health of our veterans – an underserved component of veteran’s well-being. Churches have distinctive strengths and capacities for care. The church is the sacred community called forth for life and healing.
If you desire more information on training, awareness, and resources to assist your church in developing or sustaining a mission and ministry for veterans and their families, please contact Chaplain Dave Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Soul Care Initiative website at www.soulcareinitiative.org