Time to Speak — Welcoming our veterans

By Father Terry Langford

Chris entered my office for an individual spiritual counseling session as a component of his dual diagnosis treatment program for Substance Abuse and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress disorder). Chris is 27, married and has served our country in two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He presents today with a serious question of faith, as many of our veterans do in post-deployment situations: “Father, why does it feel like God is no longer in my life?”

Chris and I explored his question about faith in God and his feeling of the absence of God in his life.

This young veteran opened up and shared his story of walking in on a buddy in Afghanistan just as he pulled the trigger and took his own life. Chris also had to make the decision to take the life of an Iraqi woman, who was speeding as she approached a military checkpoint, and would not stop at the direct orders of the United States military.

Chris also experienced heavy artillery bombardment while in Afghanistan. He shared with me that he prayed to God so the shelling would stop.

“But Father, it didn’t stop. So I prayed to the devil, and it stopped,” he said.

All of these tragic events compounded the grief of this young man and brought profound disillusionment to his world.

It became very clear to me at that moment that this young veteran would need continued emotional/spiritual care as he found his way back to God and came to the realization of the awesomeness of God’s love for him Chris is not unlike so many of our young veterans who are coming home from the theatre of war in the Middle East and, due to the traumas of PTSD, MST (Military Sexual Trauma) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and simply the difficulty of re-entry into civilian life, have lost their spiritual grounding and find themselves lost and feeling a thwarted belongingness in their families and communities.

In these most recent wars, military members have engaged in multiple combat tours interrupted by short periods at home with family, followed quickly by a rigorous season of field training in reconstituted units, preparing for the next combat tour.

These young people, who are the future of our nation, suffer from serious mental health issues that become so burdensome that they feel the only way out is suicide. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) showed that based on data from 21 states, young veterans ages 18-34, both males and females, are dying by suicide at about twice the rate of their non-veteran peers.

On that cold winter day, as I sat with Chris and began what would be a journey of healing and reconciliation with God and with himself, this young veteran would begin a process of rediscovering his faith in our loving God — the God, who as I explained to Chris, not only stopped the shelling that day in Afghanistan, but brought Chris home safely to his waiting family to begin to rebuild his life based on a new found faith and a God who loves this young man more than he or I will ever know.

In this year of faith, as we continue to roll out the new evangelization, how are we opening up our faith communities to our returning Veterans and their families?

What are our parishes doing to recognize these young men and women? What programs are we establishing to bring our young veterans home to our Catholic faith that can sustain them, assist them in finding their spiritual grounding once again and reintroduce them to a loving God that can bring them peace in their lives; a peace that has been shattered by wars that have taken them so far from us, mentally, physically and spiritually?

I would like to propose a simple ritual — that includes a hymn, psalm, Scripture reading and prayer — to welcome our veterans back into your faith communities from a deployment. To view and download “A Welcoming Ceremony for Veterans Returning from War.

Father Terry Langford is serving as a Catholic Chaplain in the St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Health Care System in St. Cloud, Minn.

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