Nearly every time I speak to a church or civic group about the stress and struggles that daily are faced by active duty military families, someone runs from the room in tears. Invariably, that person was the spouse or parent of a soldier currently deployed in a combat zone. When I speak to the person later, I always want to apologize. They, however, always want to thank me. They thank me for sharing their story, their fears and their daily struggles because military families rarely feel free to volunteer such information. Spouses of deployed soldiers will rarely tell you, for example, that they never relax until about 10 p.m. because that is when the military suspends notification of deaths for the night. These families, whose loved ones we have sent into harm’s way, suffer because they feel bound by a code that admonishes them to carry on stoically, even during a third or fourth year-long deployment.
Just as often, after I speak, church members approach me to share that they have known military families for years but never realized what kinds of pain, stress and fear those families face. These caring folks too often are laboring under the myth that “The military takes care of its own.” That the military can or will take care of any and all needs family members of soldiers have is a myth, write the authors of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans. With skyrocketing suicide rates in active duty ranks, and more and more combat veterans surviving serious brain injuries, the mental and physical health providers for active duty soldiers and veterans are simply overwhelmed; they cannot begin to meet needs of families under the duress of a nine-year-long war overseas.
Beginning with “What Military Families Want Us to Know,” though, authors David A. Thompson and Darlene Wetterstrom share in just over 100 pages what military families need churches to know if we are ever to become truly welcoming to military. Often, we believe ourselves to be “military-friendly,” but we also consider military families and soldiers to be different from us in ways that preclude significant ministry. This is simply not true today, according to Thompson and Wetterstrom and, while they share what is unique about military families, they also explain how similar they are to all the families in our midst who struggle.
Beyond the Yellow Ribbon provides concrete ideas for ministry that can be immediately accessed and implemented by churches. The book promises to “help bring combat veterans all the way home,” but the information relates as much to families with soldiers who are currently deployed as well as those facing deployment and those who have lost soldiers to combat, whether in this current conflict or a past one.
Especially helpful are the specific “Tips for Ministry” at the end of each chapter. Suggestions range from ensuring that children of deployed soldiers get to participate in outings, to offering yard and fix-it help, to encouraging pastors and church members to think through their own attitudes about war and how those affect their ability to be welcoming.
We have learned from veterans of World War II that soldiers and their families live with great pain and often guilt and shame for their part in war. With Viet Nam veterans, we learned that the psychological and spiritual damage combat inflicts upon soldiers and families too often leads to suicide and homelessness. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are discovering that this war’s multiple deployments, no clear “frontline” and frequent exposure to explosions are resulting in even greater emotional, psychological and spiritual damage than was caused by the war in Viet Nam. With this nearly decade-long war overseas, our churches need more than ever to be the places military families find help, grace and understanding and Beyond the Yellow Ribbon offers just the guidance churches need to connect with military families in their midst.