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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Ministry with Soldiers

WIGIAT...where is God for the soldier on the battlefield or the one who has returned with PTSD...these are the impetus for this week's question for the matriarchs.

I have been meeting with a female soldier who is suffering from PTSD. I need some helpful resources. She tried talking to her unit's chaplain but he was all about "getting back in the game" and she is asking the harder "where is God in all of this?" type of questions.

Mostly, I just listen to her story, spend time with her (not a hard task because she's awesome!) and reassure her of our love and God's love for her. (I've done my CPE - I know that being present where the person is and not trying to "fix" is important!) -- but -- she has been asking me for things to read (nonbiblical). It also doesn't help that I'm a pretty strong pacifist so the "just war" stuff doesn't sit well with me, either. Any suggestions?


Pacifist Pastor

Earthchick, who blogs at  Earthchicknits , was our sole respondent this week:

It sounds like you have done all the right things so far – kudos to you for your faithful ministry.  I feel such a burden for the men and women who are returning from war, and it’s so disappointing to read that this woman’s unit chaplain is not being the kind of resource she needs.  It is wonderful that she has you.

I assume that when you indicate that you are a pacifist and that the "just war" stuff doesn't sit well with you, that you are simply acknowledging your own feelings in struggling through this with her, rather than indicating a desire to persuade her of anything. 

I am writing not as someone who has ministered to soldiers suffering from PTSD but as someone who is familiar with military life (I'm an army brat and spent a portion of my early young adulthood doing a little bit of volunteer service in army chapel services) and who, as I indicated above, feels a strong sense of concern for those who are charged with fighting wars the rest of us have the privilege of being completely uninvolved in. I don't have firsthand knowledge of any resources, but there are three things I have run across in my reading that sound useful but that I can't personally vouch for. 

I've recently read a few outstanding reviews of the new book The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner, a soldier who served in Iraq in Explosive Ordinance Disposal, and then came home with Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD. It sounds excellent and it is high on my reading list. I am recommending it not for your soldier, but for you. It sounds like an exceptional glimpse for civilians into what these men and women are dealing with, not only in war, but once they come home.

I've also read great reviews of the book Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home - Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI. It has gotten 5 stars from nearly everyone who has reviewed it on Amazon. It might be a good book for the two of you to work through together.

Finally, I'm aware of an organization called The Soldiers Project, a group of mental health professionals who offer free psychological treatment to service members. You can check out their website and see if there's a location near you. The woman you are meeting with likely needs long-term help, and probably beyond what a pastor has the time or resources to provide. So if you could find a group like this to link her up with, that might help.

Again, these are all suggestions from someone who has actually used none of these resources nor have I yet been in the position of caring for someone who is actively suffering from post-war PTSD, so take this advice for what it's worth. I'll be interested to read what others have to say. Blessings on you as you continue to minister to this woman.

Do you have something to say about ministry with men and women serving in the military?  Experience as a soldier or a chaplain or pastor to those who serve?  Please share your insights below.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I'm writing this post to you only 5 days after my younger brother returned from his 3rd tour of Afghanistan with the Marines. My husband has served two tours in Iraq (plus missions in Haiti, the Balkans, and Somalia). I did not grow up in a "military" family, but somehow I have grown into one. PTSD comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and affects soldiers/Marines/sailors/airmen differently. There are many excellent chaplains, but it sounds like this woman has found one in you and not in her unit. It is important to understand that she may have genuine difficulty pursuing mental health resources within the military health system for fear of marks on her record or lack of confidentiality. What seems like the obvious solution to you, as a civilian, can often be fraught with red tape, stigma, and a focus on "getting back to work", rather than to wholeness (despite the recent movement toward resiliency, etc). She may well need some counseling that is beyond your ability, but as you search for a resource to that end- I would recommend that you continue your conversations (as you have indicated). Working through "Once a Warrior" as mentioned above may be helpful. The Soldiers' Project is a good resource. If you live in a large enough area, the local women's center may have counseling resource information for female service members. I would also recommend, though it may seem very old, that you read Martin Luther's essay, "Can Soldiers too be Saved?" I do work with children of service members and with spouses (as a spouse), but not usually with combat service members, as it is too close for me. I wish you well in this endeavor. While I commend your pacifist feelings (and relate to them), please remember that service members serve for a variety of reasons, but the reasons, conditions, and continuation of wars rarely have to do with them.

    1. Dear Pacifist Pastor,
      I've been involved in prayer ministry for years and one of the best things I've found for that is Dr. Karl Lehman's stuff. He's got his own website:
      He's a Christian, Medical Doctor, Psychiatrist and gentle soul. He's also married to a pastor. Together they've developed a really interesting technique that they call "Immanuel Approach" and follows the very question you asked, "Where is God in all this?" He's got books, DVDs, online support, all kinds of things. He's based in the Chicago area but does workshops in different places around North America.

  2. If I may add to this... I'm a chaplain resident at a VA in TN. My stomach turned for weeks as I heard war stories and finally am comfortable listening to them. The greatest resource we've found is a book by Edward Tick, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nations Veterans from PTSD.

    Many of my veterans say, 'i was never the same', 'i never returned to church', or resonate with, 'i lost my soul'. Tick's thesis is that PTSD is a soul wound. He brings men and women to healing through story and many rituals. He actually brings Vietnam veterans back and many sleep through the night for the first time in 40 years.

    I'm so glad as a local Pastor- you are opening up to new veterans. As many of us 'protested' the war, I realize the struggle to 'support' veterans. However, we can't leave them now. We must help them find their created selves again and find wholeness after seeing or doing unspeakable things. It's hard to believe in God when you've been through hell.

    I'll stop rambling now. I hope this book helps and I hope all Pastors will read it and connect to their local VA chaplains office. I can't say all chaplains are good, (as this story mentions), but we're all learning.

    grace and peace,
    Deven Johnson

  3. Another resource may be Rita Nakashima Brock, who has been doing work regarding "moral injury" and soldiers returning from war and finding difficulty integrating their spiritual and "work" lives. I'm not sure she's published on that topic yet, but a google search for her should bring up her work.

  4. This is all very helpful - thanks. You are correct that she didn't want to go "in network" for counseling. She is active duty, very gifted, and an officer. She's also aware that she needs help and she wants to heal. I greatly appreciate all of your suggestions and will be doing more reading. The idea of it being a "soul" issue is right on point. I'm glad to be with her in this journey.

  5. You may also want to take a look at Paula Caplan's work -- I think the title is "When Johnny and Janie Come Marching Home". It occurs to me that hearing these stories and walking with these sufferers takes the slogan "Support Our Troops" way way beyond the cheering and the pom-pom waving dimension.


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