Serving Veterans: A Social Justice Issue

Serving Veterans: A Social Justice Issue

by the Ven. Gary Brown, St. John's, Marysville

Someone once said, “If you want to get people to support a cause make sure it’s about abused animals, children or veterans – in that order.” That assertion might fit the world of today, but it has not always been true. There are generations of veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars that would have disagreed; they were not treated well when they returned from combat. What many people do not realize is that many of them, now in their late 60’s, 70’s or older, are still suffering the effects of not only the wars they endured, but also the treatment they received (or for the “Forgotten War” vets of Korea, the welcome they did not receive) when they returned home. A significant number are living on the streets, in the alleys and in the tenements of the poor.

Many military veterans suffer the invisible wounds of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD or as referred to today as PTS), a chronic disorder that lasts a lifetime, often without remission, if untreated. Names for the disorder have changed over time. Once called Soldier’s Heart (Civil War), Shell Shock (WWI) and Combat Fatigue (WWII), the diagnosis of PTSD did not become recognized as a psychological disorder until 1980. Estimates of PTS in today’s returning combat veterans are about 30%. Symptoms include flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, episodes of rage, withdrawal and other distressing issues that make keeping a job, sustaining a marriage and staying out of hospitals and jails a challenge, and also results in a high rate of suicide. Fortunately, today’s veterans are coming home to festive welcomes and acknowledgment of their service to our country. Churches are searching for ways in which they can welcome those returning service men and women back to their congregations, and there are some excellent resources on how to accomplish that effectively. For most veterans, caring coming from their congregation and good pastoral care will enable a smooth return to civilian life.

Unfortunately, however, not all veterans are going to be returning to church, or staying in church, once the welcome is over. They may be having trouble finding employment, affordable housing or simply re-adjusting from a life where choices are made for you by the military, to one in which they are suddenly having to be responsible for making their own choices. If they do suffer from PTS, their symptoms may prevent them from being comfortable in crowds. Furthermore, if they were in a combat area, they may also suffer from moral injury, in which they are having trouble with having been part of (or seen) things that violated their conscience. Or perhaps they might suffer from spiritual injury, in which they question how a loving God could even allow such horrific things to happen. They may need psychological help as well as pastoral care; the problem often is getting them to realize and accept that help when it is available.

Five years ago, a group of us in Grass Valley formed a nonprofit called Welcome Home Vets. The primary purpose was to provide mental health services to veterans and their family members. Services for this group of people were limited or non-existent in Nevada County at the time. Welcome Home Vets was formed as a secular organization, but included volunteers of several faiths, including no faith. However for me, serving veterans quickly became a diaconal ministry. Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley provided both spiritual and some financial support, and Welcome Home Vets is currently located in a historic building rented from Emmanuel. But we quickly learned one thing: if you build it, they don’t necessarily come. We had to become very social, and reach out to veterans at street fairs, concerts, homeless shelters and everywhere else that people congregate. Our services now include referral to other social service agencies, advocating for veterans with the Veterans' Administration and other governmental agencies, helping a veteran’s widow take a couch to the dump, providing emergency funds when we have them and so forth. Even today, most of those we serve do not profess church membership.

After having been a part of creating this truly diaconal program in Grass Valley, being assigned as the deacon to St. John’s Marysville was initially a challenge to my diaconal sense of responsibility. That challenge was not because St. John’s did not have any outreach programs, but because they already had many successful outreach programs – a thriving Food Shelf and Clothes Closet (affectionately named “Loaves and Britches”), monthly Community Meals and both parishioners and staff who responded from the heart to human needs. Marysville is an area which is in economic decline, and the numbers of homeless and poor are greatly out of proportion to the overall population. Yet St. John’s, a small parish, was responding with all it had. How was I, as a deacon, to ask the parish to provide any more services to the poor, weak, sick and lonely? What else can we do? What was missing?

The answer was found within the outreach we were already providing. What we were not recognizing was that many of those we were already serving were veterans – a group with unique needs but with unique resources available – resources most of them don’t know about. One simple addition to the intake questionnaire provided us with a gold mine of data – we started asking, “Have you ever served in the military?” From that one question, the volunteers working in Loaves and Britches had an astounding awakening. Many of those homeless and poor we served were veterans – those who had served our country yet found themselves unable to fully benefit from the potential for the good life which they had fought to protect. Many, obviously, suffer from PTS and other psychiatric disorders; disorders which had often led to attempts at coping through the use of alcohol and drugs.

What we then had to do is become familiar with the resources available to veterans, educate veterans about those resources and make referrals. We are fortunate to have some good local resources for veterans, including a local organization that provides help for homeless veterans as well as a Veterans Administration clinic in nearby Yuba City. So the second task has been to develop collaborative relationships with those and other service providers. Because we had developed a collaborative relationship with the organization for homeless veterans, they donated 300 blankets to a Homeless One-Stop held at St. John’s, blankets that could be given to veterans and non-vets alike.

So the lesson is this: if you have already covered the bases with serving abused animals and children and are ready to serve veterans, just look around within your existing outreach programs. Ask, “Have you ever served in the military?” Then become familiar with the assets for those veterans in your area, develop collaborative relationships with those assets and establish channels for making warm hand-offs to those who can help. It is a wonderful way to fulfill your baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” It is a gratifying way to serve Christ through serving others; in this case, others who have already served us through their own service to our country.


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