The Visitor


(Cmdr. Laura Bender serves as the command chaplain for the Wounded Warrior Regiment on Marine Corps Base Quantico.  She provides pastoral care to not only the wounded, ill, and injured (WII) Marines and their families, but also ministers to the spiritual needs of the Marines and civilians on the staff.)

The following paper is written to be used in one of three ways:

  • As an article to be published in a magazine for clergy
  • As a posting on the General Board of Global Ministry’s website, to be read by clergy of the United Methodist Church

As the opening address for a clergy seminar that provides training and tools to assist them in their work with returning war veterans. This would be accompanied by slides flashing silently giving those in attendance a chance to “see” military members in a war zone in ways that often remain unseen to the civilian population.

In preparing to write this paper I had two items in mind. The first was a letter received from a former student at the Naval Chaplains School who was sent to Iraq a few months after graduation. He had been asked to send feedback to his instructors regarding the training he had received and its applicability in his actual work. Here is an excerpt from his letter:

Regrettably, I’ve done memorial services for 30 Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen so far; 25 from my own Battalion, and we’re not out of the woods yet. We will most likely lose a couple more in country, then due to the disproportionate trauma of this tour, we’ll lose a few more in the months following. I pray not of course, but it is what it is. We had about a 20% casualty rate, with guys losing limbs, eyes, etc.

I was injured (very minor) in an IED strike, and have had been in the front row to mass casualty events, remains recovery, mortar strikes … I know you’ve heard this before, and this is nothing new, forgive me.

I wish I had had a little more training on Death/Trauma: how to give a field memorial service; Grief counseling when you are one of the bereaved; return/reunion for the walking wounded to their unit; return/reunion of the combat stress injured to their unit; self-care on the battlefield (that’s been especially rough).

I’ve not been in the Navy a year yet, but if feels much longer. God has been faithful, and He is my constant supply. I thank you for all you’ve done to prepare us for challenges like this; I would not take anything away, just add some more.

The second item I had in mind was an article published in the November 2007 issue of theAmerican Legion Magazine.  This article was written by a chaplain who was about to end an eighteen month tour in Iraq and speaking on behalf of those with whom he had been serving he said:

(We) are now going to be asked to put aside our weapons, our sense of security, to leave one another behind and return to the life of a civilian where most of you have no idea what we have endured or suffered… How will they (his troops) take these 18 months and make sense of them? Who will translate for them what has taken place, in ways that those who remained home can understand and appreciate…?1

In response to those two items, I wrote the following paper:


1. Douglas A. Etter, “The Worst and Best Months: Combat Zone Chaplain Grapples with the Complexities of Coming Home,” The American Legion Magazine (November 2007): 32.


The Visitor

You are working on next Sunday’s sermon when there is a knock on your office door. You look up and standing in the doorway is a young man. His hair is close cropped and although it is winter, he has a tan. He is wearing jeans with a belt and a shirt with a collar, civilian casual attire – he has made sure to dress properly for his visit to see the pastor. “Sir,” he asks, “Have you got time to see me?”

You look at your watch. You have two hours before your next appointment. “Yes,” you say, “I have some time now.”

The question he has asked you is not as simple as it sounds. It is not so much about having the time, as it is the desire, the understanding and the vision to really see him.

The young men and women who have gone into harms way in Iraq and Afghanistan have lived through difficulties and dangers few can imagine. Having the eyes to see them will take more than time. It will take training to learn about the military system and the practical issues faced by those within that system. It will take study to come up to speed on the recent advances in trauma research, especially in the areas of Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury. It will take a sense of humility to listen to the newly found world view of young people who, through experience, are wise beyond their years. It will take courage to listen to them, to really listen to their stories, told haltingly or brashly, with the stops and starts that accompany all tales of trauma. It will take patience to refrain from giving them easy answers, especially when their issues become burdensome or overwhelming. It will take a love for them that transcends your position on war or this war and allows you to care for them in spite of your politics. Finally, it will take faith and hope to help them find the peace that passes all understanding, so that having returned from war, they can finally make the journey home.

So what might you expect to hear from the young man now seated on the other side of your desk? Depending on your previous relationship with him, it may seem that he has just stopped by on his own to tell you that he is back or he is doing so because he has been prompted by family members. Either way, his visit to your office should not be taken lightly, for you represent the God who sustained him in battle or the one with whom he is enraged or disgusted or by whom he feels betrayed. His time in theater has caused him to confront the profundities of life in a powerful and compelling way, and for good or ill, God is in the midst of his experience. Since you represent God, you should expect that even a conversation that starts lightly will move into deeper water once he has tested your initial response.

What will that test look like? It will most likely be a test of your ability to listen. Finding someone who will listen to a veteran tell, and thereby begin to process pieces of their fragmented story is not easy. Friends will ask, “So, what was it really like over there?” and begin to back away when they become uncomfortable with the answer. Sometimes they will ask that question in situations where the veteran is trying to relax and reintegrate with life around him. Asking what might seem like a conversation starter at a party may trigger the replay of visions in his head that quickly return him to the trauma from which he is trying to find relief. Others may ask the veteran to talk about his experience and then quickly interrupt to compare his struggle with what, to the veteran, seems to be some trivial annoyance from their own lives. If you, as a pastor, enter into a conversation with a veteran, be prepared to talk little, hear difficult things and give a lot of time.

Initially your conversation may revolve around something the veteran needs from you. The young man seated in your office may tell you that while deployed his experience of God was so powerful that now that he is home he wants to make a formal commitment to serve God. What may have initiated this decision is some bargaining with God when he was in a life or death situation. It is not uncommon for someone in trouble to say, “God if you get me out of this, I promise to serve you.” The fulfillment of that promise may take a variety of forms. He may ask to be baptized or confirmed if he had not done so before. He may ask you to officially endorse him for lay leadership in his military unit. He may even start talking about becoming a minister or a chaplain once his military commitment is fulfilled. No matter the form of this commitment, what he is telling you is that he sees his survival as an act of God for which he is incredibly thankful. What he needs from you is a way to claim his faith while leaving space for discernment and a period of readjustment before making major life changes.

Speaking of major life changes, the young man may have stopped by to see you because now that he is home, he wants to marry the sweetheart with whom he has been corresponding for so many months. Or he may be there to ask you to baptize the baby born, while he was away, to the young woman he married a few days before deployment and with whom has never lived. As you well know, becoming a spouse or parent has many layers of joy and frustration. These dynamics are only heightened by the real issues of return and reunion for service members. A conversation about expectations and making wise decisions over time might be in order. It might also fall on deaf ears. Like seeing survival as God’s doing, service members may also equate their survival to the idealized love of the one who waited for them.

Your help in making a commitment to God or another person is not the only request that might be made of you. Do not be surprised or hurt if the young man in your office asks you to transfer his membership to another denomination. Since chaplains are assigned to units without regard to faith group, military members often have a take it or leave it option when it comes to attending services. If your parishioner has been shepherded through a war time deployment by a dynamic chaplain, he or she may have aligned with that chaplain’s theology and feel compelled to convert. While it is important to explore theological issues with your parishioner, use caution when trying to counter their newly revised faith stance. It may be the one thing still holding him together.

Once you move beyond the surface level reasons for his visit, what can you expect to hear? He will probably begin by describing what daily life was like in theater, and he may begin with humor, because to endure the realities of life over there requires a healthy dose of it. “Put on a snow suit and winter clothes as if you are going skiing,” he might say. “Then put scuba gear on over top. Wear this outfit on the hottest day in summer while standing in front of an open oven door with your vacuum cleaner set on reverse, spewing its contents back into the room. That’s what it was like over there daily, pastor.” In addition to telling you about heat and sandstorms, he may describe his favorite pre-packaged Meal-Ready-to-Eat, as well as make jokes about hygiene, or the constant lack thereof. Humorous though these comments may be, they uncover how draining it is to live with no relief in such a harsh environment. These challenges of daily living are compounded by the loss of agency and individualization as well as a lack of privacy that are part of military daily life in a war zone. The young man seated across from you should be congratulated just for having endured the accommodations and conditions.

After talking about daily life on deployment, he may now turn the conversation to what it is like to live “back here.” While returning military members often report an initial renewed appreciation for life back home, this can quickly fade as reality sets in. Readjustment to civilian life is not easy. The intensity of life and death experiences in theater may make issues that are of great importance to family and friends seem trivial and petty. In fact, these relationships themselves, which might have become idealized in memory while far away, may now seem superficial when compared to the intimate bonds experienced with unit members who so recently relied on each other for survival. Additionally, it is these “battle buddies” who know the truth of the veteran’s wartime experience, a truth that for many reasons cannot or will not be shared with family and civilian friends, thus widening the gap between them and making reintegration more difficult.  The young man in your office may already be experiencing some problems readjusting to home, to this new version of himself, and to living surrounded by those who have no idea what life was like “over there.”

If he feels comfortable with you he may begin to speak about his emotions. This may depend on the level of your pre-deployment relationship with him or his expectations of you based on the relationship he has with his unit chaplain.

Some of these emotions might be quite positive. For example, he may be enjoying a new level of self-confidence; he may feel that having endured and survived, now no challenge is beyond him. He may speak with pride of the work he accomplished while deployed. He may especially tell you, as a pastor, of community outreach activities in which he participated and the lives he touched with acts of kindness. Don’t be surprised. Although not often reported by the news, a good deal of positive work is done with the local communities in theater.

Other emotions may not be so positive. He may feel a sense of confusion when faced with a variety of choices. Lack of self determination while deployed can make decision making back home a challenge. If he experienced combat, he may want to talk about his relationship to fear. Did he overcome it? Did he “lose it” when things got bad? How does he feel about his response to the fear? If he lost friends while deployed, he may be struggling with grief and guilt. Did he do all he could to save them? Why did he survive and not his buddy? What is his responsibility toward his deceased friend’s family? Should he contact them? If he was in a fire fight and killed anyone, he may be struggling with guilt and anguish over taking life. And if he feels no remorse, he may feel guilt because of its lack. He may also be struggling with his self image at the deepest level: His family and friends think of him as a hero. Some of what he has done and experienced may make him feel like a monster. Which is he? One, or the other? And if those who love him knew the truth, what would they think of him then? How could he live with that?

The emotions expressed by your visitor, if he trusts you enough to speak of them at all, will be varied and barely find their way into language. They may come out in story or tears or a sullen turning away. It is precious and precarious territory into which you are both venturing. Let him speak or not. That he is there with you speaks volumes.

Many returning warriors have grave difficulty expressing or even identifying their emotions, which makes them not unlike the rest of us, only their issues may be more intense. Many may even have been afraid to return home, knowing that they are not the person they were before they deployed. And too many come home bringing with them a whole host of demons. In the synoptic gospels there is a story about a man who lived among the tombs from whom Jesus drove out many demons. When Jesus asked him what his name was, he replied that it was “Legion,” a military term signifying a large number of soldiers. Perhaps this man had been a soldier himself, and filled with so many demons, so many intrusive memories that seemed real in his recollecting of them, he was now resigned to living among the dead. Sadly, many generations of war veterans have been so resigned. After the Civil War, returning veterans who experienced difficulties were said to be suffering from what was called “Soldier’s Heart.” After WWI it was called shell shock, then battle fatigue, combat fatigue, then combat stress. Now we call it post traumatic stress. By whatever name it is called, it conjures up images that are persistent and legion, disallowing its sufferer to leave the land of the dead and fully resume life among the living. Symptoms of post traumatic stress may include intrusive distressing thoughts, nightmares, irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts and difficulty concentrating. In addition, hyper-vigilance and an exaggerated startle response, two actions essential for survival in a combat environment, but inappropriate to civilian surroundings, may persist. If these symptoms continue long after the military member has returned home or are greatly interfering with a return to everyday life, there may be need for intervention by medical personnel. If the young man in your office describes symptoms that seem to suggest he is experiencing post traumatic stress, do encourage him to seek medical care, and follow up to make sure he has done so. These symptoms may be severe and life threatening if unaddressed.

Besides psychological concerns, your visitor may be wrestling with theological issues. His departure from the rules that govern civilized society, and his subsequent return may be deeply distressing to him. He may be struggling with the morality of his actions in war and may be wondering if he really is welcome to come back to church. Although he may not be able to ask you directly, he may be asking himself: Does God still love me? Am I going to Hell? Where was God? Why did God allow this to happen? Whose side is God on? Why did God allow me to survive and not others? Because I survived, do I now owe God? Additionally he may focus in on a few specific actions and be struggling with an inability to forgive or feel forgiven. Or, he may be looking to the broader issues and be questioning the morality of war in general, or this war in particular. To help your visitor address his questions, you will need to prepare your own thoughts long before the knock comes at your door.

“Pastor, do you have time to see me?” is a question all clergy will be asked sooner or later by the men and women in their congregations and communities who are returning from war. Some will be young men, like the visitor to your office, who because of back to back tours may have spent the bulk of their adult lives in a war zone. Others may be men who are not so young and are trying to juggle family responsibilities and service to country. Still others may not be men at all, but women, who these days, with the front line of conflicts blurred, are also finding themselves in combat zones. Regrettably, some of these women will have had their experiences in theater made worse by sexual assault or harassment by their brothers in arms and may look to you to help them sort through these painful issues. Since 40% of those deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been reservists, they too will have special concerns such as re-entering the civilian workplace, lost income and difficulty accessing military benefits. The concerns and needs of today’s war veterans are many and varied. Some are grandparents, some will deploy at the same time as their children or spouses. All will deploy for war, and many will return with life altering wounds, only some of which will be visible.

Pastor, are you ready to see the returning war veteran now? They are here and they need you. But be aware, when you open you door to the veteran, he or she will open your eyes to visions you may carry with you for the rest of your life.

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