Insights from Providing Care and Counseling for Veterans and Their Families, an event in CTS’s Lifelong Theological Education series
Just because they’re home, doesn’t mean they’re home. They’re not home until we get them there.” This provocative and challenging statement came from a participant at the Providing Care and Counseling for Veterans and Their Families workshop held on February 10, as part of Christian Theological Seminary’s Lifelong Theological Education series.
Against the backdrop of troops returning daily from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 80 mental health professionals, clergy, veterans, military chaplains and lay persons came together to discuss how communities can respond to the mental health needs of veterans and military families. Veterans returning home from the front line can experience a spectrum of mental health challenges ranging from anxiety and depression to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and even suicide. Families, friends and congregations often find themselves ill-prepared to assist veterans with the challenges experienced after the welcome parties are over and life returns to normal.
Yet resources do exist to support troops and their families during the transition to civilian life. To broaden awareness of these resources and facilitate dialogue about how faith-based, healthcare and community leaders can assist in the re-entry process, CTS counselor and professor Dr. Matthias Beier organized a conference focused on the mental health of veterans and their families.
Dr. Beier became deeply concerned with the emotional and mental health issues returning troops experience after he joined the Indiana State Suicide Advisory Committee. Every day, 18 American veterans commit suicide and one in five suicide victims is a veteran. With 500,000 veterans living in Indiana (about eight percent of the state’s population), Dr. Beier felt a responsibility to reach out to others vested in caring for veterans, their families and their congregations.
Speakers from a breadth of mental health, veterans affairs, and pastoral care backgrounds spoke at the workshop, including representatives from the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center, Indiana Joint Forces Headquarters, VA Office of Suicide Prevention and military chaplains.
One workshop addressed the dilemma known as “battlemind.” According to Major Jim Staggers of the Indiana Joint Forces Headquarters and an alumnus of CTS, military members are trained to perform their jobs in a combative environment. The process of moving from battlemind to civilian life may not happen automatically and may call for creative, personalized solutions. For example, Irvin Edwards, payroll and benefit coordinator at CTS and a Vietnam veteran, shared with Dr. Beier how he began running marathons after his final tour to literally “outrun” the pain. During the final mile, he would repeat, “This is for the homecoming” in memory of his fallen or injured comrades
Indeed, like many veterans, Edwards found that leaving the frontline was just the beginning of his personal battle. “The hardest battle I ever fought was coming home,” Edwards stated.
Civilian comments and moral judgments can be powerful weapons when it comes to veterans’ emotions, Dr. Beier noted. “It’s not uncommon for civilians to casually ask a veteran how many people he killed,” said Beier. These types of questions can inflict emotional pain and wounds long after the risk of battlefield injuries has ended.
Several scholars have explored the impact that war has on an individual’s spirit and psyche. Dr. Beier referenced the work of German theologian and psychoanalyst Eugen Drewermann as a powerful account of the emotional costs incurred by those employed to make war. Drewermann’s German book, Returning Home from Hell – Tales about War Injuries and Their Healing examines coping behaviors veterans may undertake to survive on the battlefield, and how they can impact mental health post-war. For example, Drewermann references the story of a returning soldier in Grimm’s fairy tale “Bearskin” which stands for the tough outer persona that is required for survival in a combative environment. He notes that military members may feel unable to shed this metaphorical bearskin upon returning to civilian life.
While the challenges are complex and myriad in nature, Dr. Beier says that collaboration and interfaith dialogue can help to begin and continue the emotional healing process as troops return from war. By engaging individuals who care for the minds, bodies and spirits of veterans, different approaches to treatment and healing can be discussed and advanced. The February 10 workshop included viewpoints of both Christian and Muslin faith leaders, allowing participants of different faiths to observe the common, human emotions war inflicts on people of diverse faiths.
Speakers and facilitators joining Dr. Beier at the presentation included Dr. Steven Herman, lead psychologist at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center; Deputy State Chaplain Major Jim Staggers, Joint Forces Headquarters-Indiana; Clyde Angel, Chief Chaplain Services, and John Sullivan, clinical social worker, Richard L. Roudebush, VA Medical Center; Joyce Smith, Consultant, Joint Forces; Chaplain Colonel Michael Wilson, IU Health; and Judi Green, VA Office of Suicide Prevention. Co-sponsors of the event were IU Health and the Midwest Region of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC).
Contact information for resources
Dr. Steven Herman, PhD
Chaplain Major Jim Staggers, MDiv
Chaplain Colonel Michael Wilson, MDiv
Clyde Angel, DMin
John Sullivan, MSW, LCSW
Joyce Smith, MA, LMFT
Judi Green, MA
Matthias Beier, PhD