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Churches can help returning veterans readjust to civilian life

Wed, 05 Dec 2012 - 3:02 PM CST

For soldiers returning to civilian life after serving in America's protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the adjustment isn't always smooth.

Chaplain Priscilla Mondt shares Communion with a patient.

Those coming home now generally don't receive the heroes' welcome World War II troops earned for their valor. Nor have the returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan usually faced the vitriol Vietnam War veterans encountered. Today, if not ignored altogether, soldiers are most likely to be thanked superficially for their service.

"There is a lot of great intention of 'let's support our veterans,' but not a lot of follow-through," says combat veteran Priscilla Mondt, the first Assemblies of God Veterans Affairs female chaplain, based in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

"There are a whole lot of handshakes everywhere I go thanking me for my service," says Dave Spayde, who retired from the army in June after dodging rifle bullets, machine gun fire, and missiles in Iraq and Afghanistan. "There are a lot of words, but not a whole lot of action. People don't know how to follow through."

Around 2.4 million Americans have served in the armed forces during campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan, and one-third of those have been on multiple deployments.

As the wars linger, more and more Americans are angry for various reasons, including the purpose of the wars, the money being spent on the effort, and the number of lives lost to combat and, increasingly, suicide. Subconsciously, that anger is sometimes manifested toward the soldier who is fighting.

Mondt, 55, doesn't see much difference in societal attitudes now from the Vietnam era, and says frustration sometimes spills over into open contempt.

"People think there is a lot of acceptance of those coming home from war now; I haven't found that," says Mondt, who earlier served as the first AG female Army chaplain. "I tell Vietnam vets to put their arm around those guys coming back now and don't let them have 20 years of estrangement from society like they did."

Much of the indifference and misunderstanding results from the fact fewer families have loved ones engaged in conflict. In World War II, virtually everyone had a relative fighting Germany, Japan or Italy. But now, with no draft and an all-volunteer military, war is off the radar screens of many Americans.

Currently only 1.4 million people serve in the military, and 100,000 of those are married to someone else in uniform.

"Those who don't know anybody in the war don't think it affects them," Mondt says.

Subsequently, there is a disconnect in the general population from the reality that tens of thousands of GIs are returning in much different shape - physically, emotionally and spiritually - than when they left.

The irony is that the military is the most disciplined and technologically advanced in U.S. history, yet its members are exhausted because of repeated tours of duty.

"It's been said that the American military is at war and the American public is at the mall," says Scott McChrystal, Assemblies of God military and VA chaplain representative.


Re-entry can be difficult when dealing with those who vocally disagree with the wars.

"It complicates recovery when people don't understand the role of soldiers," Mondt says.

David Spayde has enrolled at Evangel University after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When warriors are put in the role of having to kill, many in the church world look at them as murderers rather than warriors who did battle. It's imperative that we be supportive and understand the reality about war so that guilt isn't engrained."

Spayde doesn't believe Americans realize how much of a target U.S. troops are in war zones.

"People can walk out their door and try to shoot an American or try to blow him up," Spayde says. "They have explosives and weapons in their homes."

In addition to overcoming improper attitudes about their role overseas, returning veterans also deal with the fallout from their own repeated exposure to the trauma of combat tours. Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, about 16 percent of those in the military have received VA treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is an anxiety condition occurring after repeated exposure to grave harm or threat. It can be manifested in such ways as insomnia, memory lapses, panic attacks, substance abuse and inability to maintain close relationships.

"Just being exposed to the challenges of war creates a hole in the soul that affects every warrior, regardless of specialty," Mondt says. "When you come back you are different. It takes a lot of time to readjust."

There are further cultural complications. Compared to previous generations, today's veteran is more likely to come from a broken home and return to a marriage that is stressed or on the edge of divorce. Biblical values are less likely to be part of the equation.

Finding work in a depressed economy adds to the pressure. Mondt says readjusting is tough when highly trained men and women who had huge responsibilities in volatile situations return home to menial jobs.

As a civilian, Spayde is making simple decisions such as what to wear and how to adjust to nonmilitary time after being in uniform for 18 years.

"I still wish I had my squad from Iraq around me," Spayde says. "They were good guys."

Not all is bleak. McChrystal, 63, notes veterans have never had better vocational, educational or medical benefits at their disposal to integrate back into society. For most GIs, a $51,000 benefit is available to obtain a college education. The VA's Post-9/11 GI Bill is paying for the education of more than 550,000 veterans this year.


The best resource of all for veterans may be a local congregation.

"Institutionally, the church is by far the best-equipped organization and most strategically located to meet the needs of veterans," McChrystal says. "Churches can offer an audience to hear the veteran's story. Veterans need someone to listen - and accept - their story."

Simply hearing without trying to fix problems is an important first step for parishioners interacting with returning veterans.

"Churches can be a tremendous source of healing," McChrystal says. "Churches can play a significant role in helping these men and women deal with healthy ways to avoid isolation."

Spayde, a native of New York, says he felt directed by God to enroll at Evangel University (AG) in Springfield, Missouri, this fall as a 37-year-old freshman. The medically disabled veteran has his tuition paid by the VA. Spayde credits AG Chaplain Greg Walker with talking him out of suicide in 1997 while stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and convincing him God still had a plan for his life.

The theology major says Evangel professors Wave and Lacey Nunnally made the transition much easier. Although Wave Nunnally has a doctorate, he introduced himself by his first name.

"That meant a lot," says Spayde, who made a salvation commitment as a 5-year-old in Royal Rangers, the Assemblies of God ministry to boys. "After 20 years, title and rank are not impressive."

Spayde moved from Alaska with his wife, Amanda - whom he met in an AG church while stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington - and their two sons, Jeremiah and Samuel. They started attending Central Assembly of God in Springfield.

Immediately upon learning Spayde was a veteran, real estate agents Don and Jan Jacques, married members of the church, doggedly searched to find the Spaydes a place to live. Pastor Jeff Peterson went to lunch with Spayde to learn more about him.

"Jeff realizes he is able to stand behind the pulpit because someone stands behind a gun halfway around the world," Spayde says.

Billy Paul Martin (left) and his wife, Denise, with their late son, Blake, who served in the Navy.

Billy Paul Martin, a medically retired Air Force explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician, believes too often God is left out of the readjustment equation.

During deployments, Martin searched for ordnance ranging from improvised explosive devices to chemical warfare weapons. He now serves as the international military student officer and public affairs officer for naval school explosive ordnance disposal at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida.

"We have the means to defend ourselves with spiritual armor," says Martin, who grew up attending Assemblies of God church services. "If people don't have God in the situation, they don't know what to do. Either I believe in Christ or I reduce my belief in Him to that of a mythological god."

Martin, who lives in Niceville, Florida, believes Christian veterans need to carry on bravely, whatever their circumstances.

"We're aliens in this world; we're not supposed to react to negativity like everybody else," Martin says. "That doesn't mean it's easy." Certainly Martin has endured a physical and emotional toll.

Although he just turned 46, doctors tell Martin he has the skeleton of a man 25 years older. Martin suffers from psoriatic arthritis throughout his body because of exposure to contaminants from a missile.

And Martin's 20-year-old son, Blake, who served in the U.S. Navy, died in March 2011 when a car pulled in front of his motorcycle.

"The culture of 'woe is me' contradicts Scripture," Martin says. "But even though God remains at the center of my life, it doesn't mean I don't cry every day. I provide relevance of my loss to that of several colleagues who lost limbs in performance of the EOD mission. Every morning when we wake up we realize our incompleteness as humans, but we live to the best of our capabilities."

Author: John W. Kennedy, Pentecostal Evangel

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