Helping Vets Come All the Way Home

May 24th, 2011

In 1863 Patrick Gilmore wrote the popular Civil War song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, the lyrics of which motivated Civil War soldiers to believe that a better life awaited them upon returning home from war:

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah! We will give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah! The old church bell will peal with joy…to welcome home our darling boy, and we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.” (Gilmore, 1863)

This Memorial Day, Americans will take time to remember and honor veterans who have served in past wars and those now returning from war--many to a very different and less stable life than they knew before. It is a time to seize the opportunity to minister to the veterans coming home from war today. Regardless of our political views on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on war in general, veterans need the care of our faith communities.

What Veterans Sacrifice

Since the Revolutionary War, 1,343,812 servicemen and service women have died for our country, with an additional 1,529,230 wounded (as of December 13, 2010), some critically disabled for life. There are 23 million veterans today. Thirteen-percent (2.8 million) have service-related disabilities. Hundreds of thousands of other veterans bear the hidden wounds of war.

Twenty-percent of Global War on Terror veterans suffers from depression, PTSD, and chemical dependency. Some of our veterans are homeless (106,000) and others are imprisoned (140,000). Annually, of all suicides (30,000), 20% are committed by veterans (6,000), with 309 active duty service members killing themselves in the past year. These veterans are often not counted as war casualties, though their lives have been permanently derailed by combat trauma. They are largely ignored and forgotten by society.

Many active duty military marriages become war casualties, due in part to estrangement after long and repeated deployments (13,000 military marriages ended last year alone). Neither they nor their family members have their names engraved on any war memorial honoring their sacrifice.

The Challenge of Readjustment

Veterans and their families need special attention from church leaders as they seek to readjust to a veteran coming home, especially if the veteran has physical or mental health injuries from war. For many families welcoming a critically disabled warrior home means they are drafted into a lifetime of care-giving duty. Those who lay to rest a veteran face a lifetime of grief, as their dreams die along with their service member. It is a perfect place for church leaders to comfort those who mourn and give encouragement and a helping hand to wounded warriors and their caregivers. Many of these families struggle with anger, sorrow, and resentment over the losses they have experienced and need spiritual and emotional support to weather this terrible storm. We can estimate that for every single casualty, there are at least ten family members and close friends impacted by these losses. Parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, spouses and children of returning veterans all experience the veteran’s difficult adjustments back home.

The families see veterans trying desperately to find work in the civilian economy, when veteran unemployment is running at 21.9% for young returning veterans (14% for National Guard and Reserves), while the nation’s unemployment rate in April 2011 was 9%. Unemployment (and underemployment) is a number one indicator of future adjustment problems for veterans. With less than 1% of our society serving in the military, it is hard for most citizens or employers to empathize with their challenges.

For veterans, “coming home” means exchanging familiar combat routines doing important work for a civilian life that cannot replicate this meaningful war-time experience. The loss of community and commitment to one another in war is felt acutely by veterans readjusting to civilian life. It is a search to be connected with others in a community, belonging to a band of brothers and sisters who really have your back, and doing something really meaningful with their lives. No such camaraderie awaits them at home like that experienced in combat. Merely coming home to get a telephone sales job feels so hollow by comparison. The existential night a person feels in such a transition is unnerving!

Veterans need the help of the church to find new meaning in life and a new band of brothers and sisters. Veterans know how to tackle tough problems with courage and ingenuity; they know how to work with diverse groups of people to get a mission accomplished. They are not quitters. Why wouldn’t we want to recruit these “can do” veterans in the life and program of the church?

Emotional and Spiritual Challenges

How can you emotionally switch from being in combat, living with daily threats to your life and seeing the chaos and carnage of war to living in a peaceful civilian world with normal family life and regular work routines? It takes a lot of time and patience for families and friends, employers and educators, and clergy and community leaders to help these veterans return home from war. In many cases, “vet on vet” outreach in churches and communities is the most effective way to help soldiers unpack their emotional duffle bag after war.

Some soldiers, exposed to graphic and troubling experiences in war, are experiencing “moral injuries” from what they have seen, heard, or done (or refrained from doing) that make it difficult to recover spiritually after war. Some vets feel they were swept up into a morally ambiguous world where civilians were made to suffer right along with combatants. How do they forget the horror of friends being wounded or killed? They struggle with shame, guilt, or feelings of betrayal by unworthy leaders or causes. Some vets are disillusioned with life and disappointed with God after war-time service.

Church leaders understand and can communicate the grace and forgiveness of the Gospel, helping veterans find peace with God after war. From older veterans, who may have not darkened the door of a church for years because of wartime experiences, you may hear a longing for God’s grace and forgiveness. Some vets are searching for absolution for war-time behavior before they die. As someone who knows God’s grace, you may find yourself on hallowed ground, able to help an old soldier who has lost his way spiritually, find his way back to the Father’s House. That would be a grace moment you would never forget.

To minister to these veterans and their families calls for church leaders to have an outreach mentality. It means building relational bridges with veterans in the communities where we live, listening to each vet’s life-story, sharing the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness, and helping them in concrete ways to come all the way home from war. When Johnny comes marching home again, let’s give him/her a proper “Hurrah! Hurrah!”


Chaplain (CDR) David Thompson, CHC, USNR (RET) is coauthor of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009). Co-authored with Darlene Wetterstrom, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon aims to help people understand the challenges veterans and their families face and encourage the church to reach out and help them come all the way home.

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