Veterans have been returning from wars for countless centuries in almost every corner of the world. Battles were and are being fought in localized insurgencies, revolutions, civil wars, regional conflicts, and, at least in the twentieth century, in two World Wars. Of the veterans who do return, many are badly injured, physically and/or mentally.
As a chaplain, I was responsible for dealing with the spiritual needs of veterans, their families, and those who cared for them in the hospital. This article is intended to alert pastors to some of the spiritual consequences that military veterans and their families often live with. I am confident that military veterans of other nations suffer similar consequences, but I can speak only about American veterans. My hope is that, having been alerted to some of the spiritual consequences of war, pastors will seek to understand the spiritual needs of the veterans in their congregations.
One big problem for pastors in seeking to minister to veterans is that many Christian veterans do not attend church.1 My impression is that combat veterans in particular do not attend church for three reasons.
The first includes a sense that the church does not understand what they endured in war. In nearly sixty years of attending Christian church worship services, I have never heard a local church pastor even ask about what veterans endure in the military, in general, and in war, in particular. (Unfortunately, I did not raise the subject when I was a local church pastor, either.) Only when I became a Veteran’s Administration (VA) chaplain did I begin to learn and speak out about the spiritual consequences of war.
A second reason why combat veterans do not attend church is guilt. The reality is that many of the combat veterans I met did things in war that they cannot reconcile with, find difficult to talk about, and which most church people would not want to hear.
The third, and perhaps most frequently offered, reason given by veterans for not attending church is what they refer to as the hypocrisy of most churchgoers. Many veterans see churchgoers as sinners during the week who find religion for an hour or two on their day of worship. This may very well be a projection of the veterans’ guilt onto others. At the very least, this claim raises the theological question of whether the veterans who make this point can stand being near a church that preaches about a God who loves them and us, despite our sin.
The spiritual issues
Have the churches avoided dealing with spiritual issues experienced by veterans? Perhaps. Some groups, of course, are completely against war and deal with the issue very directly (Mennonites, Quakers, Church of the Brethren). Other denominations in the United States of America are either tolerant of war or speak out only when it comes.
The veterans are left to struggle with the question of the morality of war—especially of killing. Many combat veterans spoke to me about the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). The veterans may or may not remember the rest of the commandments, but they remember that one. Once having killed, the veterans are often unable to process the guilt. Notable exceptions to this problem are the veterans who fought in World War II, often seen as the last “good war.” Many believe that the killing they did in that war was necessary and morally justified.2
Some combat veterans wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin. Who is there, in the church, to listen to their anguish or offer them help? Many pastors do not even include a prayer of confession in their worship. Others seem to focus more on the punishment due to sin and less on God’s mercy.
We can begin by using prayers of confession, not directed at veterans or at war, but at our human tendencies to sin. Pastors can preach about God’s love and forgiveness at least as often as we do about God’s judgment. William Mahedy, a combat chaplain in Vietnam, suggests in his book, Out of the Night, a service of reconciliation that can be used to help veterans reconnect with God’s mercy.3
Grief is another issue faced by veterans. In fact, grief can accumulate so rapidly during combat, as one’s friends are dying all around them, that there simply is no time to work through the sorrow. The lack of time to grieve may result in the grief becoming chronic—it never ends.
Veterans may get stuck in any stage of grief but many whom I have known are stuck in anger. People who are angry are often difficult to be near. Angry veterans can be particularly difficult to be around because their anger is often directed at forces that average Christians, even pastors, have no way to do anything about, especially in the short run (i.e., the military, the VA, the politicians who went along with starting a war, the entire government, etc.).
Also, anger in many churches may be considered as everything from “not nice” to sinful. That makes it difficult for churches to deal with anger other than in a confessional way. In my experience, veterans have legitimate reasons to be angry, and someone must listen. Perhaps the worst of the anger must be dealt with in therapy groups in VA hospitals, but the church still has a role to play as well in providing a safe place for people to talk about their anger and, eventually, ask for prayerful support in healing from their anger.
If no one listens, then the anger can surface in really hurtful, dysfunctional ways. It erodes and eventually destroys relationships even with the people who love the veterans the most. One of the driving forces for anger was explained by our ethics professor in Seminary. He said, “Anger is the normal reaction to an injustice.”4 If injustice in war exists, then anger, even lifelong anger, could be expected as the normal reaction.
Dealing with death and addiction
Another spiritual issue raised by war is the reality of death. The sights, sounds, and smells of death can be so overwhelming that the veteran is left with terrible memories that may never go away. Veterans who had the duty either of gathering body parts after a battle or inspecting the body bags are often unable to forget the experiences.
This kind of unforgettable scene, among others, raises the question of “Why?” “Why did so many friends die?” “Why did the person next to me die while I survived?” This is the issue of “survivor guilt.” There may be no good answers. Still, someone must listen so that the veterans do not have to carry the pain alone.
Another problem that many veterans suffer from is addiction. Alcohol and drugs offer ways to avoid remembering, at least for a while. During my fi rst year in Seminary, I met a Vietnam vet. He lived across the street from us, and we became friends through sharing a car battery charger on a bitterly cold winter day. I knew that John5 was a heavy drinker. He was on his third marriage and couldn’t work. One day he told me about his experiences. He flew as part of the crew of a B-52 bomber that made long flights to drop bombs on Vietnam. Because the planes were always flying at an altitude of fifty thousand feet, John never saw the effects of the bombs. But after he got out of the Air Force, he wasn’t able to cope with his role in the bombings. Thus he drank to forget, and the drinking got worse and worse.
Of course, one of the problems with drinking to forget is that sooner or later the memories come back—at least until so much brain damage exists from the alcohol that the person forgets almost everything. If you know people who drink too much, you might consider the possibility that they are drinking to forget and need God’s grace in place of the alcohol or drugs.
Alcohol is not the only way that veterans cope. A good friend, Frank, was one of the most gregarious, outgoing, and seemingly happy people that I have ever met. It wasn’t until one night when we were working together in his pharmacy in 1965 that I learned of his experience in the military. He had been a medic in the Korean War, and spoke of having to change the dressings on wounded men.6 Just viewing, much less treating, those wounds sounded like a traumatizing experience. However, listening to his infectious laughter, one would never know that Frank had been exposed to such sights. Humor can be a helpful tool in coping with many of the stresses of life, but humor can also cover up a lot of emotional and spiritual wounds that need to be treated—or at least shared with a pastor trained to listen in a nonjudgmental manner.
Combat veterans, unlike most of us, live with the awareness of what human beings are ultimately capable of doing. It is a frightening reality to live with and difficult to believe that the people who love us (family, friends, and churchgoers) can accept us. The church needs to reach out to veterans to reassure them that the good that God can do is far bigger than whatever they have done or are afraid they might do again.
To realize that women served and still serve in the military is also important. Their suffering was often severe too. The ten thousand or so nurses who served in Vietnam saw the broken and dying bodies of men hardly as old as they were. Other women were traumatized by sexual assault in the military, frequently by our own troops. All too often no one listened to their stories.
A local church can conduct an anonymous survey of its members to determine how many are veterans and, in particular, how many are combat veterans. Then, with the support of the church leadership, a local VA chaplain could be invited to preach or give a talk about the spiritual needs of veterans. If the congregation is too distant from the local VA hospital, the church could search for a retired VA or military chaplain living in the area. Another possibility would be to contact a pastor who was in the military before becoming a pastor. At least five of my colleagues in ministry were in this latter category.
Whether or not a VA chaplain is available, the church can be supportive of the veterans and their families by encouraging them to go to “Vet Centers.”7 These facilities, usually some distance from the grounds of a VA hospital, are staffed with trained counselors (many, if not all, of whom are veterans) who can provide psychotherapy to help stabilize relationships, help veterans cope with the stress of living with the consequences of war in general and combat in particular, as well as deal with sexual trauma.
A pastor can prepare to deal with the spiritual needs of veterans by enrolling in at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in a hospital setting.8 This is usually easiest to do when still in Seminary. However, depending on location, it is possible to take a unit of CPE at a VA hospital in a later stage in our ministry. At the very least, such training can help the pastor be aware of their feelings as well as the issues of health care as they encounter patients, families, and the hospital staff.
When it is not possible to take part in this kind of training, pastors may address their need to learn about veterans’ issues by forming a study group. If a VA chaplain or retired military chaplain is available, they could ask such a person to help them explore the spiritual issues that veterans face. They may also fi nd a book or article on the needs of veterans and discuss it without a leader.
Listen with respect and love
What else can we do as pastors? At a minimum we can encourage our churches to recognize veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day or similar days designated for such occasions in your area. Perhaps we could offer veterans the opportunity to take part in a discussion period after worship for those willing to listen to stories about the veterans’ experiences.
As the veterans are telling their stories, we can listen with respect and love. We can be patient enough to not rush in with assurances that “God forgives you.” While God does forgive anyone who wants to be forgiven—combat veterans, in particular, often need for their stories to be heard before they can move on to further stages of healing. If they choose to confess something to a pastor privately, that pastor should maintain the confidentiality expected of them unless there is an imminent threat to the veteran’s or someone else’s well-being.
If your church is near a VA hospital or a veterans’ nursing home, you could contact the office of volunteers to arrange for ways for church members to reach out to veterans. Churches could provide people to assist with transport of veterans from one part of the hospital or nursing home to another, read to a veteran with impaired vision, or write letters for those who need help in this area. Members can come and sing during the year, especially at Christmastime. Church families might volunteer to attend VA hospital or veterans’ nursing home worship services. It might even work to host a lunch or supper on Veterans’ Day to honor veterans and their families. Also, pastors who are willing to officiate at funerals for people who are not active in church may discover opportunities to minister to the families of veterans.
If a VA hospital is nearby, pastors of local churches can establish a relationship with the staff chaplains. Pastors may visit their own parishioners when they are hospitalized in VA hospitals and veterans’ nursing homes as well as nonveteran facilities. Finally, pastors can attend, and even offer to participate, in local community Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day programs at a VA medical center. This becomes an excellent way to convey the message that we care about veterans and their families and are available to them.
On a marble lintel over an inside doorway at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, where I served as a chaplain for twelve years, a message is inscribed, “The price of freedom is visible here.” These men and women have sacrificed for us; we need to be there for them.
1 In a survey of 125 veterans at White River Junction, VT
[VAMROC], I conducted, it indicated that approximately 90
percent of that sample did not attend church. Lawrence
L. LaPierre, “The Spirituality and Religiosity of Veterans,”
Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, vol. 4, no. 1, 80.
2 Personal conversations with dozens of combat veterans
of World War II, White River Junction, VT, VAMROC,
3 William P. Mahedy, Out of the Night—The Spiritual Journey
of Vietnam Veterans (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1986),
4 Marvin Ellison, class discussion in an ethics course at
Bangor Theological Seminary, Bangor, Maine, U.S.A., 1981.
5 Pseudonyms have been used in this article to protect the
6 Personal conversation with a Korean War veteran in
Leominster, MA, 1965.
7 Veterans Readjustment Counseling Centers.
8 For listings on CPE Centers, visit www.acpe.edu/