(RNS) Some 2 million Americans have served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Now, thousands are coming home each month and trying, sometimes with difficulty, to settle back into civilian life.
Churches are uniquely positioned to help returning veterans adjust and find meaning in their lives away from the battlefront, according to David A. Thompson, a retired Navy chaplain and co-author of the 2009 book, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans.
For two years, he worked as a military family life consultant, helping 8,000 soldiers and their families handle the transition back to civilian life. He says churches need to recognize what they have to offer and rise to the occasion.
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where do congregations have something distinctive to offer to veterans who are just now returning home?
A: It really comes down to meaning-making and wrapping people into a community and a brotherhood. Those are the two pieces that veterans long for.
Q: Why?
A: Soldiers have been in an experience of being intensely bonded together. They come back to the civilian life, and they feel like they've lost their place in life, their community, their brothers and sisters in arms. All of a sudden they're back in a very individualistic society. There's not the same level of care and commitment to one another. That's a real big missing piece.
Q: What else do they crave?
A: They want to be doing something meaningful with their lives. I had one soldier come back and he said to me, "I'm back in a job at Best Buy. I'm selling big screen TVs to people who really don't need them.
Less than a year ago, 20 people depended on me for their lives. I was involved in doing things to help stop violence. I feel like I'm just wasting my life."
Q: Where is our society not doing enough?
A: We're asking them to come back sometimes to stuff that's pretty boring and pretty deadening. We're not challenging them. We're not saying to them, "Have you thought of the Peace Corps? Have you thought of doing something for the cause of justice?" There are a lot of things we could hook them into.
Q: How can churches help veterans who face these kinds of struggles?
A: We could elevate people to capture a vision of doing something that's meaningful. Then we could assist them in the transition by connecting them with training or with people engaged in certain kinds of work. In that, you become part of a band of brothers working for a great cause.
Q: Why are these circumstances largely unaddressed by organizations that exist to serve veterans?
A: Sometimes we, in our medical model, are zeroing in on all the people who need a hospital, or who need serious mental health interventions, which probably is about 20 percent of the veterans who are coming home. But 80 percent are this other kind of veteran, who really needs to end up getting a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
Q: What do returning veterans have to offer congregations?
A: They've had a lot of responsibility in the armed forces. They show up on time, they're terribly loyal, they don't quit easily. Many of our churches grew as World War II veterans became part of those churches. Many of the churches we have today are standing because of that group that came back and is now in their 80s and 90s. Why not do that with this group?
Q: How can churches reach out to veterans?
A: The welcome mat has to be out in a way that's saying more than, "Come and receive some help for basic needs." It really needs to be a reciprocal relationship where veterans are giving something to the church, and the church is giving something to them. Then it's a community.
Q: How do churches learn to create environments where people make significant sacrifices together for great causes?
A: I'd probably start with a small group of people -- not just military people, but people in general who are struggling with the deadness of life that doesn't have a lot of meaning and who are frustrated. I'd build a mini-community within the church community of people who want to explore options under this idea of meaning-making and community-building. That might lead to mentoring relationships. And we'd see where that goes.
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