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It’s been my practice over the years to take a moment in worship, on Veterans Day Weekend, to acknowledge our veterans and their families. This sort of thing can be tricky, especially when civil religion so often gets confused with the Christian faith. I’ve tried to walk this line delicately, avoiding language of “American exceptionalism” and doing what I can to remind the church that the kingdom of God is not bound to any single nation, and that our ultimate allegiance to Christ trumps all national loyalties. We can only ask God to bless America if we include in the same breath a prayer for God to bless every other nation, including our “enemies.”
Christians have debated the ethics of war for centuries (going back to Augustine, if not earlier). While we may differ on our views of whether Christians should participate in military warfare, I think we’d all agree that we (as a society and a church) have a responsibility to care for our veterans and their families, especially when they return home.
I recently came across an intriguing article by Sebastian Junger, a veteran himself, published in a May 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. Junger points out that even though only 10 percent of American forces see combat, “the U.S. military now has the highest PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] rate in its history—and probably in the world.” He goes on to say that “the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposer to danger” (that is, actual combat).
Junger acknowledges that some of these reported cases of PTSD are “exaggerated or faked” to work the system and get disability compensation. But the majority of traumatized vets are not faking it. It’s real. And it’s having a devastating impact on their lives and relationships. He writes: “They return from wars that are safer than those their fathers and grandfathers fought, and yet far greater numbers of them wind up alienated and depressed. This is true even for people who didn’t experience combat.”
Then Junger makes this point, which I find deeply provocative: “In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society.” Read that sentence again, slowly. The real challenge, suggests Junger, is that when these vets return home, they find themselves missing the close-knit community and connection they experienced among their fellow soldiers. This “group identity” and connection is heightened in times of battle, when their lives are on the line. These soldiers eat together, sleep together, laugh together, struggle together, depend on each other—all of it creating deep bonds of trust and belonging. When they return home, they feel lost and isolated in a fractured society that continues to drift toward solipsism and alienation. This is where so much of the PTSD kicks in. “Being in a war zone with your platoon feels safer than being in an American suburb by yourself.” This is why so many want to serve another tour, often leaving behind spouses and young children to return to the battlefield (the 2008 Academy-award winning film The Hurt Locker portrays this reality powerfully).
One of the keys to caring well for our veterans, says Junger, is that we have to go beyond thinking so individualistically about treating PTSD and find ways to help create stronger social support when they return home. In other words, it is a call to community healing. And here is where our vets struggling with PTSD actually hold up and mirror and show us all just how isolated and disconnected we are as a society. Advances in technology like the internet and cell phones only seem to be making it worse. In the words of psychologist Sherry Turkle, we are a society that is “alone together.”
Junger ends his article by offering some suggestions for how we might provide better social support for our vets. The most compelling one for me is his suggestion that we do away with parades and special services and replace them with some form of homecoming ceremony where veterans are given an opportunity to speak publicly about their experience. He writes:
“The vapid phrase ‘I support the troops’ would then mean actually showing up at your town hall every Veterans Day to hear these people out. Some vets will be angry, some will be proud, and some will be crying so hard they can’t speak. But a community ceremony like that would finally return the experience of the war to our entire nation, rather than just leaving it to those who fought.”
Junger concludes with this sizzling line: “It might also begin to re-assemble a society that has been spiritually cannibalizing itself for generations. We keep wondering how to save the vets, but the real question is how to save ourselves. If we do that, the vets will be fine. If we don’t, it won’t matter anyway.”
As the church, we are called to have something to say about community, connection, healing and belonging. Maybe we need to step up and take a more active role in caring for our veterans and their families. If Junger is right, this would require us to look in the mirror and confess our own fragmentation; and then pursue, in the power of the Spirit, what it truly means to be “re-assembled” as the body of Christ.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.