By Fr. Jake Greiner
Throughout my life I have been privileged to know men and women who have served in the military. The exemplary lives of these men and women are one of the many reasons I eventually discerned that God wanted me to join the Iowa Army National Guard to serve as a chaplain. In this role as an Army chaplain I continue to witness the exemplary lives of active service members and the millions of veterans who have served our country.
This additional role as a chaplain has also helped me to better appreciate the struggles that active service members and veterans suffer as a result of their service in the military. These exemplary lives come with costs not always evident to those who have not served in the military or who don’t have family or friends that served. As national advertising campaigns have said, the wounds of military service are not always physical. This reality is truly one of the difficulties facing all members and former members of the military. Furthermore, the psychological and spiritual wounds of military service may not manifest themselves for years. Veterans are told to be vigilant about these problems to the point where these men and woman may even feel guilty if they feel normal and fine. This is the world in which our veterans live.
I want to highlight one important tip I give to people who want to assist current military members and veterans as they deal with some of the struggles that come with military service. The tip is simple: be patient with veterans! They will talk and open up about their struggles and concerns when they are ready. This tip is so commonsensical that it is sounds ridiculous, but our contemporary society is so impatient, especially when a person is suffering or experiencing problems, that it wants veterans to be “fixed” now. No one wants to be “fixed” faster than veterans because their military training is completely based upon problem-solving and quick responses to difficult scenarios. Military training can prepare a man or woman for the possible use of lethal force in the face of an enemy, but no training prepares someone for the crippling effects of depression, loneliness, fear, hatred, pain, shame and disassociation. Again, we who want to minister to veterans just need to be patient with them as they seek answers and find words to tell the world why they are suffering.
It is true that getting someone to open up about their experiences can facilitate healing, but this process of sharing is something that can be difficult or seemingly impossible for veterans. These difficulties can stem from multiple areas of concerns, but this is the primary concern for many: If I tell you what has happened or what am I experiencing, will you treat me differently? This concern exists because the constant theme among many people in regards to their friends and loved ones who served in the military is the fact that this person has changed. “You are not the person that I remember.” “What happened to you?” “Why did you change?” Veterans know that they have changed and they might be resisting this change or learning to accept it themselves. Therefore, these responses hurt veterans because they might not have an answer, or the veteran is afraid that the answer might hurt the people they love.
If you are going to be patient in order to help a veteran, please do not judge him or her about what they report to you. Simply make the promise that you will journey with them to get the help they need through the VA, medical doctors, trained therapists, chaplains and clergy and anyone else that they need. If there is one thing all military members do understand, it is the importance of a “battle buddy” or teamwork in accomplishing the mission. If you are willing to be patient, you will truly minister to veterans who need it.
(Fr. Greiner is pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Knoxville and Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher.)