Sundoulos - Summer 2009

Ministry to Veterans

by Rex Johnson, Kevin Doll

It‘s Memorial Day Weekend, and you ask all the present and former servicemen and servicewomen in your congregation to stand for special recognition. They stand and are applauded, but later you and your wife have lunch with a family in your church that includes three children, Dad (who served in Iraq) and Mom, and Grandpa (who served in Korea) and Grandma. You ask Dad to tell you about some of his experiences in Iraq. He says he doesn’t like to talk about it, especially in front of the children. Mom simply says, “It was hell.” Silence. Grandma breaks the silence with the observation that her husband served in Korea, and has never talked about it with anyone either. You suspect there are a lot of hurts, frustrations, fears, bitterness and anger bound up in both men, but you are not sure what to do or say to help either of the men or the rest of the family, so you let them change the conversation to more pleasant topics. But how can you as the pastor help this family, especially the men, to heal, especially if they won’t talk about their experiences and feelings?

Things are Different Now

While Vietnam is the closest extended war to today’s generation of warriors, there are significant differences that pastors need to understand.

  1. Vietnam was largely fought by draftees who, after serving in combat, came home, and in most cases were discharged from the military. It was very unusual for anyone to serve more than one combat tour in Vietnam. Today, the average soldier has multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with very little time spent “back home” before redeploying into combat. I (Kevin) have buried soldiers who were on their third or fourth combat tour in Iraq when they were killed. There were many difficulties that Vietnam vets faced in reintegrating and working through the issues of 12 months in combat. But imagine having those same issues multiplied by numerous combat deployments which last up to 15 or 16 months before returning home.
  2. The National Guard is playing a very large role in the current conflicts. This is a crucial fact: it means that churches which normally would not have a ministry to military personnel because of their distance from an active duty installation are now surrounded by military personnel who are either deployed or have been deployed.
  3. Women are playing a much bigger role in the current conflicts than they did in the past. The roles of women in past conflicts were usually as nurses or in support roles, and they never actually saw combat themselves. While women are still prohibited from serving in an actual combat unit as an infantry soldier, women now serve in roles that have led to directly engaging the enemy. There are no “front lines” or “rear areas” in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus every soldier, male or female, faces the same issues arising from combat experiences. Churches may need to shift their thinking about ministry to combat veterans. There may be just as many women who have engaged the enemy in direct combat as men. This brings an entirely new concept of ministry to combat veterans. How does a mom return to her children after serving in combat and perhaps even seeing children killed while she was deployed?
  4. I (Kevin) do not think the effects that children experience when a parent, or in some cases both parents, who have served in multiple combat deployments, have been adequately studied. With daily news stories, pictures and video coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, and now with pictures of remains being returned from combat, how does all this information affect our children? In my own family the fear and emotional effects of four deployments and having to leave my children “behind” for a year or more each time is a major concern.

Who Can Help?

Usually, the only people servicemen and veterans will discuss their painful military experiences with are other servicemen and veterans. Very few will talk with a (non–military) psychologist or therapist because they don’t feel the need for professional help. Training for battle is toxic to basic personal values as men and women are equipped to be soldiers and fighters. Battles are so emotionally overwhelming and dehumanizing that men and women survive emotionally by numbing their normal responses. Many service personnel, then, can describe their battle experiences, but not their emotions without reliving the horrors.

Does this preclude you from having a ministry of healing for servicemen and servicewomen? Absolutely not—provided you have some understanding of how to approach such a ministry. Is there a veteran in your congregation who might rise to the challenge to mentor other servicemen and servicewomen? Could you put together a team of veterans, plus maybe a therapist to mentor the next generation of soldiers who struggle to normalize after being in combat? Sometimes pride in survival can lead to pity rather than empathy for those who are still wounded physically or especially psychologically. But you may have in your congregation a veteran like Dr. Wilkins, who has worked through the emotional wounds and memories and will respond to the challenge to reach out to other servicemen and servicewomen.

I (Kevin) think that even if a church does not have a spiritually mature combat veteran available to help provide ministry, a church can still have an effective ministry to veterans. It may take a bit longer to develop a sense of trust and a safe environment for a combat veteran to open up, but a loving and caring individual or team can be effective given time and, of course, the working of the Holy Spirit. Veterans are looking for someone they can connect with and feel safe in sharing.

A very interesting event took place between Dr. Wilkins and myself when I was taking his DMin class on discipleship. I had just returned from my first deployment to Iraq where we had almost daily contact with enemy fire the entire year I was there. I had never meet Dr. Wilkins until I showed up for his summer module. Over the two weeks I was there we talked about my experience, and the more I talked about my experience the more he openly shared his experiences in Vietnam. Over the years I had learned not to ask Vietnam veterans any specific questions about their experiences because it usually did not go too well. This was really the first time I had spoken to a Vietnam veteran as a war veteran myself, and I was very cautious in our discussions. But I was also amazed at how much Dr. Wilkins was sharing with me. During one of our classes, someone asked Dr. Wilkins a question about his experience in Vietnam. When the question was asked, I thought “this is going to turn out bad,” and I was sure he would stop the discussion right then. But to my surprise, he not only answered the question but he elaborated on his experience. As he continued speaking I could tell that he was talking about things that he rarely, if ever, discussed. He was speaking on a very personal level. As he concluded he made a statement which made a big impact on me and has guided me ever since when dealing with soldiers who were engaged in combat. He simply said, “I have never shared that openly with anyone.” Yet he had just shared this very personnel account of Vietnam with the entire class. I am convinced that he did this because over the week or so I had been talking with him we had developed a bond that allowed him to feel safe enough to discuss his own experiences in combat, and because of that sense of safety, not only did he share a very deeply personal account, but he did so openly in front of a class of non–combat veterans! What he did for me that day was to let me know that I can connect with other veterans and even have them openly share with me. Until that point I thought that my experience in a war zone was less credible than other soldiers because I am a non–combatant and I do not carry a weapon. What I learned that day was that even though each person’s experience may be different, we all share a common experience in combat, and it is this common experience that has allowed me to provide some personal ministry to other combat veterans.

Common Responses to Trauma

Even if you do not have experience in war, we all share to some extent the common experiences of fear, rejection, loss of a loved one or friend or even our “innocence.” We all have lost dreams, time, and have been faced with issues of faith. We have all asked deep questions about our significance and the meaning of life. While non–veterans need to be careful not to try and relate their non–combat experience in the category of combat, we can all reach people on a common level. Once this is achieved, the door to ministry opens wide.

Dr. Wilkins, in the account of his journey to Vietnam, described his fear in going into battle as a nineteen year old soldier. Fear is a primary response, and when we cannot do anything with it, it is paralyzing. Servicemen and servicewomen learn even in training to replace their fear with controlled anger. It is not that they are taught to do this; they are taught to focus and fight. After repeated experiences of replacing panic with controlled anger, the result is that soon the panic is instantaneous, and anger becomes an impulse almost like an electrical charge, replacing the fear. This serves well in combat, but not so well in relationships with family and friends after discharge from military service. It gets in the way of strong affection and intimacy. So it gets replaced by “cold anger—,” more acceptable forms of anger such as sarcasm, criticism, discounting people, slander, contempt, bitterness, etc. Over time, many of these forms of anger are left behind as life goes on, but they can come back in full force when a veteran is under pressure or in grief. Cold anger isn’t really left behind; it is buried inside. This process is not limited to veterans of combat. It is common to all (except God Incarnate) who have been traumatized by abuse, neglect, or horrific experiences such as major accidents, and of course, combat.

Over time in positive relationships, and in response to the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, many veterans will confront these forms of cold anger and develop better affection and intimacy. Some will not. But the ability to be vulnerable usually comes later, if at all. Dr. Wilkins is a veteran of combat who chose to be vulnerable to God and His Word and chose to be vulnerable to his wife and family, and others. When you find a veteran like him, you have the potential of a ministry to other veterans in your church and community.

Normal Responses after a Soldier Returns Home

The military services have developed several excellent brochures to help family members prepare for the return of their dad or mom, son or daughter, and in all the states there are military offices that service personnel can turn to for assistance. In an information paper for military chaplains, U. S. Army Chaplain Richard G. Poindexter lists 15 personal reactions that are normally experienced when a soldier returns from deployment. He includes feeling overwhelmed, frustration, irritability, depression, guilt, crying spells, loss of trust, loss of interest and motivation, fatigue, sleep disturbance, concentration problems, memory problems, feeling emotionally numb, feeling jumpy,and flashbacks. Again, these are experienced after returning home.

Chaplain Poindexter also mentions four interpersonal reactions:

  • Difficulty talking about deployment experiences;
  • Difficulty readjusting to family routines;
  • Difficulty reconnecting with children and spouse;
  • Discomfort being around other people.

Both personal and interpersonal reactions are best resolved in community. When feelings are buried inside and relationships deteriorate, soldiers need a long–term safe community of supportive people.

A Transforming Community

Maybe the most positive experience of military service is the development of community. Servicemen and servicewomen learn to live with their comrades, cooperate with them, trust them, love them. They may experience these investments for the first time in their lives. Then they return home and find that everything has changed and they don’t know who to trust, whom to turn to. It is easy to fade into isolation. They need other military comrades and veterans to reach out to them.

If veterans in your church will accept the challenge to come together weekly for exploration, support, gentle confrontation, Bible study, honest openness, prayer, forgiveness, for about three years, they may develop the kind of transforming community that Jesus prayed for in John 17. Three years? It takes time to develop the safety to admit negative characteristics, talk about impulsive anger, various forms of self–protection and self–comfort, and discuss primary–level psychic wounds caused by trauma. Larry Crabb, in Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our Relationships (Thomas Nelson, 2004), describes the kind of honesty and openness needed to really connect with other human beings, as well as the results and barriers to overcome. A transforming community cannot be transforming if people just listen to someone teach. To be transforming, a group, and especially its leaders, needs to foster a humble acknowledgement of sinfulness and need; to be willing to invest time; to create a climate of safety and comfort; to avoid defensive habits and the need to be right; and a willingness to change. These ingredients are a lot to ask of anyone, but think about it—they are also what we let go of when we turned to God for salvation.

To summarize, as pastor, you have the duty—and, by the grace of God, the ability—to minister to returning veterans, and to equip veterans in your church to minister to other veterans and to current military personnel and their families. May God use you to build up the Body of Christ.


Rex Johnson (MRE, Talbot, PsyD, Alliant International University), is Professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership and Director of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Program at Talbot. He is actively involved in curriculum development and teacher training ministries in the former Soviet Union countries, Africa, and the Pacific Rim. Rex often conducts marriage and family workshops and ministries with his wife Eve. Rex is easily recognized on campus by his largeblack cowboy hat.

Kevin Doll (DMin candidate, Talbot) is Garrison Chaplain at Picatinny Arsenal,New Jersey, and a Major in the U.S. Army.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

Resources for Ministry to Veterans

Military Ministry, an outreach of Campus Crusade for Christ, has taken the lead in providing churches with ministry resources and programs. They have produced two excellent programs: One is “The Combat Trauma and Healing Manual: Christ Centered Solutions for Combat Trauma.” This resource balances the spiritual and psychological aspects of healing from combat trauma and PTSD-related issues. Second, a resource for wives is called “When War Comes Home: Christ-Centered Healing for Wives of Combat Veterans.” Any church can easily integrate these resources into their ministry even if they do not have a veteran to lead them. Military Ministry also produces a small pamphlet that outlines how churches can provide ministry to combat veterans. Their website is www.militaryministry.org.

A book titled Two Wars – One Hero’s flight on Two Fronts Abroad and Within (Tyndale House, 2009) was written by Nate Self, a former Army Ranger who was involved in the rescue of Navy Seals captured by al-Qaeda during the battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan. The book deals with his struggle with his Christian faith, PTSD and reintegration with his family. This is a good book for pastors to read to gain some understanding of what combat soldiers go through with issues of faith and PTSD.

The VA also has several good programs available for all veterans. A pastor may consider meeting with a VA chaplain to see what type of programs are available and compatible with his ministry. Military One Source, www.militaryonesource.com (1-800-342-9647), is another great resource to which a pastor or a church can direct current active duty, reserves and National Guard service members; Military One Source offers free counseling for service members and their families, help with finances, taxes, deployment support and any other issue that service members face on a daily basis. Pastors can also call the number and find out what kind of support is available in their area for service members.


Rex Johnson (MRE, Talbot, PsyD, Alliant International University), is Professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership and Director of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Program at Talbot. He is actively involved in curriculum development and teacher training ministries in the former Soviet Union countries, Africa, and the Pacific Rim. Rex often conducts marriage and family workshops and ministries with his wife Eve. Rex is easily recognized on campus by his largeblack cowboy hat.

Kevin Doll (DMin candidate, Talbot) is Garrison Chaplain at Picatinny Arsenal,New Jersey, and a Major in the U.S. Army.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

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