Veterans Affairs needs an overhaul, and churches can lead the way in veteran care reform—only if they work together.
I’ve wondered how the church would respond to wounded veterans’ needs. In communities across the country veterans return attempting to fight through their traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, or physical ailments. There has yet to be a national church coalition formed in order to respond to this growing need.
The church in the United States has waned in privilege, but still, Christian voices still possess power to sway minds, whether for ill or good. Changing the paradigm and awakening people to the horrors of war can occur in the pulpit and church community. War remains a human institution, and affects humans regardless of borders, race, or theological position. Moreover, veterans returning home from war return to the same communities churches inhabit. What follows is not a comprehensive solution, but the beginning of the conversation.
In 1917 as the United States entered the war, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (FCCCA) gathered to create a “handbook.” Among the objectives at hand was “To formulate Christian duties relative to conserving the economic, social, moral, and spiritual forces of the nation.” The FCCCA, what would eventually become the National Council of Churches, wanted to provide a means for people to engage the war knowing full well that it would forever change the nation.
Henry Churchill King, at the time Oberlin College president, speaks to the issue of war and the church’s responsibility. King’s point that Christianity has both a responsibility and opportunity should cause many churches to salivate. After all, the church across the board (save Pentecostalism) has experienced dramatic dips in attendance. The responsibility rests in making the greater society aware of the immense tragedy and horrific nature of war.
For King this came to fruition by referencing an English soldier that “[feels] that he is fighting to-day for the ending of war, in order that this thing may never occur, again—fighting to deliver his children and his children’s children from the curse of war.” After the 20th century, we are not naïve enough to think we can deliver our “children’s children from the curse of war.” Yet we can awaken people to the tragedies occurring in the minds and upon the bodies of soldiers, civilians, and psyche of a nation.
One way this might occur is by working with organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which formed to stand against the Iraq War. Out of their formation, they held a conference to tell the stories of war and why they are against the war. Their efforts are compiled in a book, “Winter Soldier.” Story after story one understands of how grotesque and how “great” this war really is. Churches already possess the framework for this work, as they are communities that gather to share narratives of life. I am suggesting that churches become evangelical in sharing the horrors of war, and in so doing they may attract those Wounded Warriors longing for a place to share their story.
Veterans Affairs, however, needs to be revamped and retooled. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as of 2010 the veteran population was at 22.7 million. Veterans Affairs has recently sought to hire more mental health professionals, but simply hiring more mental health professionals does not mean better service. This is the story of Ian Rodriguez who, in December 2006, filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Due to his suffering from PTSD, he argued, he deserved monthly disability and priority mental health care from the VA. Five years later he is still waiting for decision. He is not alone: 870,000 veterans are also waiting for a decision. Suffice to say, the system is broken, but it’s broken for nearly eight percent of Americans who fought to give 100 percent of its citizens freedom.
Any suggestion for how engaging the church’s responsibility and obligation to veterans will occur, then it must happen on a unified front. Of the host of issues Christians do not agree about, perhaps one issue escaping infighting is the issue of veteran care. Perhaps something like, “National Coalition of Churches Supporting Veterans,” or, “Unified Congregations for Care of Veterans.”
Can we believe in each other enough, in the hope of our common humanity, to create an organization of churches across the theological spectrum to train and equip congregations in how to engage veterans? Perhaps we can move through our theological differences, and see our responsibility and opportunity.