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Companionship with veterans on the 
pathway to wellness

The Christian military chaplain recognizes that we have a God who has chosen to identify with experiences of trauma and moral injury, says Murray Joseph Thompson.

When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, he opened the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and read these words:

“The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61:1,2; Luke 4:18,19)

Upon finishing his reading, Jesus sat and boldly proclaimed, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In that moment, Jesus illuminated his mission on earth for all who would follow him as faithful disciples, ministering in his name and the pathway they should follow. There is a boldness about this charge that can bring fear to the fainthearted and doubt to even the most faithful believers. At the very least, it serves as a signal to embrace the Spirit’s call to minister in the name of God to foster wellness and wholeness among God’s children.

It was providence that gave me the distinct privilege and honor to serve among America’s finest young men and women as a United States Army chaplain endorsed by the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel for nearly 10 years, both stateside and overseas. Throughout my time on active duty, I enjoyed the close fellowship and friendship of many hundreds of soldiers who performed their duties admirably in order to accomplish the greater needs of the U.S. military whenever and wherever they were ordered. But, as one might imagine, the duties and responsibilities that they were asked to bear often placed enormous stress on our military personnel that, most likely, would last for years to come as they remained on active duty or left the service to become veterans.

A military chaplain’s caregiving and understanding helps those in the military make sense of their physical, mental and emotional experiences, which are often horrific, as they begin to form a spiritual framework for dealing with those events. Lest one be tempted to discount the criticality of the chaplain’s role in fostering healing among veterans of war, we need go no further than Scripture to see references to priests in the Old Testament who often accompanied soldiers into battle. As when in Deuteronomy, priests are told: “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be terrified or give way to panic before them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4).

From the centrality of God’s ancient priestly leaders, all the way to today’s spiritual shepherds in the form of military chaplains, the need for healing among those who voluntarily and willingly offer their lives in the service of their country should be obvious.

Within this context, the primary role of the military chaplain when counseling both soldiers and veterans usually comes down to helping them deal with what haunts their minds and souls. There is often a tendency for veterans and their family members to build a barrier that seals off the reality of human suffering. Healing cannot be found by the veteran denying that anything is wrong. Hence, the chaplain’s role is to help the afflicted overcome this wall of negation to more clearly understand God’s way to wholeness.

To be sure, this is not an easy task for the chaplain to accomplish. Still, it is possible if the chaplain, as a spiritual counselor, can help the afflicted soldier or veteran begin to see that there is a real continuity in life that leads to health and wholeness, despite any psychological struggles. All people stand in need of healing — not only those facing acute mental health challenges. But for veterans and their families, this all too often becomes the stumbling block that tends to separate them from each other and the wider community. Interestingly, the same impulse to divide existed among the people of ancient biblical communities, which excluded the ill (such as lepers) from their homes and synagogues.

If the attitude of those counseling veterans should harbor a prejudice against the military to begin with, the likelihood for the person’s full recovery is vastly negated. So, this is precisely where the military chaplain complements the treatment of the counselee as one who can identify with just what the soldier or veteran has been through, as the chaplain has most likely gone through the same experience in the field or in actual combat.

Here, the role of the chaplain is to offer a way for dealing with the twin threats of separation from family and friends and denial of suffering. Chaplains do this through strong affirmation and support while also encouraging the afflicted veteran to rejoin with the greater community, particularly with that person’s faith community. Jesus recognized that the leper’s freedom from his disease required the sufferer to show himself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded as a sign to the people (Matthew 8:4). In this tradition, restoration to health and wholeness implies restoration to the community of faith. Knowing that the typical military faith community is filled with people who are ready to receive soldiers and veterans who are suffering, the chaplain can take comfort in knowing that the solider or veteran will be in the affirming hands of fellow soldiers and family members who also have shared his or her unique life experience. After all, this is what leads to the abundant life of wholeness.

The Christian military chaplain clearly recognizes that we have a God who has chosen to identify totally with humankind — including experiences of trauma and moral injury. This commitment has thrust God into our own arena of brokenness and suffering that includes soldiers and veterans who have sacrificed to benefit the lives of others — and often return home with physical or emotional injuries. Theologian Karl Barth understood this ability to identify with the suffering person in his interpretation of the birth of Christ as a “radical incarnation.” Regarding the entry of Christ into the world of flesh and blood, Barth states in “Church Dogmatics”: “In the fact that God is gracious to man, all the limitations of man are God’s limitations, all his weaknesses, and more, all his perversities are his. In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, God acknowledges man; he accepts responsibility for his being and nature. He remains Himself. He does not cease to be God. But he does not hold aloof. In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, he also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God.”

God’s presence is imminent among those who are filled with anxiety, guilt and pain. It is vital that the military chaplain understands this and communicates it. From this perspective, the chaplain can guide the sufferer toward healing and wholeness. God is there in their pain. God is present in their hopelessness. God resides in their relationships with one another and their families. God can be sought within the chasm of their suffering, rather than outside of it. As the sufferer learns this, they find their destiny and hope.

Assuming that the counselor knows the weight of their responsibility for the well-being and wholeness of the young soldier or veteran, it is my firm belief that the professional care available through military chaplaincy bridges the gap between where the veteran has been to that place Jesus would have all of his faithful people be when he says to his disciples, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Murray Joseph Thompson served as a Presbyterian pastor to multiple congregations and as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. He is the author of “Shepherds of God in Wolves’ Clothing: Random Reflections of a Former Army Chaplain” and lives in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania.