Veterans Day: Chaplains, churches bolster U.S. troops
North American Mission Board
Chaplains may serve as noncombatants in the military but that doesn't always mean they're far from combat when serving troops on the battlefield.
During his final deployment in 2008, Fisher traveled with the 926th Engineer Brigade stationed at Camp Victory in Sadr City, a section of Baghdad, Iraq, and site of fierce battles that currently are the subject of a National Geographic mini-series titled “The Long Road Home.”
Fisher's unit arrived as a group of military engineers whose objective centered on repairing the war-torn city – a task in which few people realize the U.S. military seeks to accomplish.
Though the rebel army had been defeated by the time the 926th Engineer Brigade arrived, those loyal to the cause were still in and around the city. Snipers were picking off soldiers as they went about their duties and insurgents placed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the city.
“About every two days, I was traveling ‘outside the wire’ on very dangerous roads,” Fisher recalled. “I had friends who were killed, and I ministered to soldiers who lost their friends.
If you're a good chaplain, you're out there where your men are.”
For Fisher, who served six years on active duty and 28 in the Army Reserve, key responsibilities of military chaplains include: 1) Be strong leaders in their faith tradition; 2) Champion religious freedom for people of all faiths; 3) Be advisers to commanders regarding morals, morale and religious issues, and 4) Counsel with a pastor's heart.
Retired Maj. Gen. Chaplain Douglas Carver, currently serving as executive director of chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board (NAMB), now draws from his years of service as a military chaplain to encourage Southern Baptist military chaplains as they encounter service members struggling with significant issues of life and death.
“Chaplains have never played an insignificant role in the lives of our troops, especially in a combat environment,” Carver noted. “The very nature of war has always prompted our service members to reflect on God, life and death, eternity and immortality.”
More than combat deployment
When people envision ministry to veterans and service members, they typically imagine serving overseas in an intense combat scenario or helping veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicidal thoughts.
Such needs are, without a doubt, significant. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that, in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day, and Fisher believes the church can be a leader in ministering to veterans and service members, even those who struggle with psychological issues.
“Our healthy churches are some of the best resources for those who are going through PTSD or moral injury,” a form of trauma associated with committing morally troubling acts, Fisher said. “Churches know how to help people who are going through grief. They know there's not a quick fix to any of these issues.”
“If a person is healthy and a good listener, then they're going to do a good job” ministering to veterans, Fisher said. Just sitting down and hearing an armed service member share stories and struggles can make a difference.
Even though the needs facing veterans and soldiers may seem daunting, Jeff Struecker, lead pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning, said soldiers' families “have the same problems that many other families have.” The added pressures of months-long deployments and the dangers associated with a position in the military just make those needs more urgent.
Aside from being a pastor in a town with one of the nation's largest military populations – nearly 120,000 personnel and their families live in and around Fort Benning – Struecker also served in the Army for 23 years, 13 in a combat role and 10 as a chaplain.
“When I was a solider, the single greatest thing you could do for me was take care of my family,” Struecker said, “and I'm sure most warriors I know feel the same way.”
Fisher and Struecker both agreed that helping the family with routine tasks while a spouse is deployed – such as yard work, car maintenance or mentoring the kids – goes a long way.
“Deployment is a crisis moment for military families, especially the first time around,” Fisher said.
“I had that prayer cloth in my helmet every time I went out,” Fisher said.
While a church like Calvary Baptist Church may be stationed near a military base, a church that's not located in a major military town still will have opportunities for ministering to veterans and service members.
“You don't have to be next to a huge base,” Struecker said. “If you have the National Guard or the military reserves near you, then you have an opportunity to reach military members who may be in a tougher spot” than those located near a military base. Large bases have amenities, such as hospitals or support groups that are not readily accessible elsewhere.
“If your church wanted to get involved,” Fisher said, “put a dot on a map [marking your church's location] and draw a 10-mile diameter circle around your church and ask, ‘Is there a VA hospital near me or any other military office or outpost?’”
Many of these installations will have chaplains associated with them, and a church “could reach out to those chaplains, host them and bring them together to help them create a network that they don't have time to create themselves,” Fisher suggested. “You would learn the needs of the veterans and military personnel in that area, and your church would learn how to become a great referral” whenever needs arise.
“Because of what they do for our country,” Streucker said of those serving in the military, “they deserve the church's ministry.”
Veterans Day, like Memorial Day and Independence Day, serves as a reminder for churches. “This day gives us the opportunity to thank God for the millions of men and women who have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy,” Carver said.
“I pray that Southern Baptist churches set the standard for loving, caring and praying for our veterans and their families. As we welcome them into the safety and security of our congregations, let's look for intentional ways to disciple them as key players in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”
12 ways churches can minister to veterans and soldiers
1. Pray for veterans, service members and the military chaplains who minister to them on bases at home and abroad.
2. Encourage emotionally and spiritually healthy church members to take time to listen to the military personnel in your community.
3. Ask those in your church who have served in the armed services to come alongside the church as it seeks to serve the veterans, service members and their families.
4. Find ways to recognize Veterans Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day at your church, along with honoring the various military branches on the dates they were founded.
5. Realize that your church does not need to be near a large military installation to minister to veterans and service members. Veterans and service members who are not near a large base may feel isolated and need greater local community support.
6. Draw a 10- to 15-mile circle around your church to locate any Veterans Affairs (VA) offices, VA Medical Centers or military installations. Reach out and ask about their specific needs.
7. Network with military chaplains in your area. Host them and help them set up a military veteran and family network. Your church can then become a referral anytime needs arise in the military community in your area.
8. If your church is near a large base with a military population where the majority of people stay two to three years, host special events (such as special dinners or welcoming Bible studies) that help service members and their families connect as quickly as possible.
9. When a service member is deployed, send letters and care packages that let him or her know of your church's prayers.
10. Help the families of deployed service members with routine tasks: prepare meals, help with car maintenance, offer to do yard work or tutor or mentor the kids.
11. Encourage the church to see themselves as a family who are there to support military members and their families while the spouse is deployed. Advertise that your church is a safe place.
12. Find a trusted, Christian counselor in your area who is professionally equipped to handle referrals for moral injury, suicide ideation or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This list has been adapted from conversations with retired Maj. Gen. Chaplain Doug Carver, retired Brig. Gen. Chaplain Carlton Fisher and pastor and Army veteran Jeff Streucker quoted in the story above.
For more information about serving our Armed Services personnel and their families, contact the chaplaincy office of the North American Mission Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.