How clergy can minister to veterans and active duty families
By Shannon Baker
SILVER SPRING, Md.—The soldier was about to be discharged from the U.S. Army because his experiences in wartime had affected him to the point he was unable to perform his duties any longer. His body was broken down. His wife divorced him because she couldn’t deal with the person he had become.
And he was suicidal. Sadly, he is not alone.
According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2014. In fact, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults, even though veterans only constituted 8.5 percent of the U.S. population.
These statistics are riveting, especially considering there are nearly 420,000 veterans who call Maryland and nearly 75,000 who call Delaware home.
As an Army chaplain and pastor, Tim Bonner is aware of the enormous task before him. Since 1990, he has served either as an Army National Guard or Army Reserve Chaplain, endorsed by the North American Mission Board. He regularly counsels veterans and active duty military personnel, many of whom are distraught like this man.
“What have you got to live for?” Bonner asked the suicidal man, urging him to look beyond his current experience. The man finally acknowledged he’d like to see his two teenage daughters grow up in life outside of the military.
Bonner agreed, reminding him that getting out of the Army isn’t the end of life.
But it isn’t easy, says Bonner, pastor of Georgia Avenue Baptist Church in Silver Spring, Md. And that’s where churches can make a huge difference, he says.
“Sometimes veterans have trouble adjusting to life outside because their whole lives were regimented. You stay within the system, you get promoted, you move to new jobs, all of that,” explains Bonner, whose current assignment is at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. “Civilian life is a different lifestyle. You have to learn a different language, way of dress—all of that—when you’re in the civilian world.”
Bonner noted that pastors are uniquely equipped to minister to these hurting heroes and their families.
“The stresses just on families reintegrating, it’s huge. What pastors are going to see is families who are struggling to get along with each other. They’re going to see veterans who could be dealing with emotional and psychological trauma because they haven’t fully processed their wartime experiences,” he says.
“But the other aspect of this is when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) comes in. If you have dealt with something traumatic on the battlefield that you personally experienced or even have heard about, those images are going to stick with you and you’re going to come back hyper-vigilant. You’re going to come back nervous,” he explains.
“PTSD can stick with you for a long period of time. When I first joined the reserves in the 90s, I was dealing with people who had been in war during Vietnam, and they still had PTSD many years later from those experiences.”
Churches can also help active duty personnel. “Often times, they’re going to get into some very destructive lifestyle habits… alcohol, adultery, … the party lifestyle where you’re not accepting responsibility or staying home with your family,” Bonner says. “When I was on Active Duty I found that there were so many young single men and women and young families who just had no church background at all. When I would try to counsel them using the Bible they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.”
He adds, “The military very much reflects society in terms of it being very secular, sad to say. The separation, the deployment, one person can be away from the other for many months at a time. All of those things just add up to being very stressful for the military family.”
For that reason, the Montgomery Baptist Association and the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network will host a one-day “Ministering to Heroes: Caring for Unseen Wounds” workshop on Wednesday, October 26, to help Network pastors and church leaders learn how to better meet the mental health needs of military veterans and their families within their local churches and communities. Representatives from the Veteran’s Administration National Chaplain Center will present at the conference, which will also include a Centrepointe Counseling Center presentation.
The training will focus on three areas: military culture and wounds of war; pastoral care for veterans and their families; and mental health services and referrals.
The conference will be held at the Network office at 10255 Old Columbia Road in Columbia, Maryland, from 9am to 4pm. There will be a nominal fee of $10 to cover the cost of lunch, which will be provided.
RSVP online at https://bcmd.org/hurting-heroes.
A 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) provides immediate access to mental health crisis intervention and support. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and then “Press 1” to reach highly skilled responders trained in suicide prevention and crisis intervention.