With Veterans’ Day upon us, it’s good to remember the 20 million of them who live among us. Some are members of our congregations and worship in our midst. Each one entered the military for a variety of personal reasons. Each one was willing to put their lives at risk for the defense of our country. Of our veterans, 77 percent have served during wartime. We sometimes forget we are currently still at war.

Without the draft, our military is all volunteer. We have what is now a professional military force with many people having served multiple tours in combat zones, which can take a toll on an individual. Besides risking one’s life, there are many other risks, such as serious physical injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), spiritual and moral injury, and more. With an average of 20 veterans completing suicide each day, we know that some of them are struggling and need help. Of those 20, about 14 have no connection with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its resources. All of these veterans are in our communities. As individuals and congregations, we can all be a part of the solution.

Here are five ways to start helping:

  1. Ask. Be intentional about getting to know the veterans in your congregation. The subject won’t necessarily come up if you don’t ask. The new senior pastor at my congregation was told we didn’t have any veterans in our congregation. When he shared that with me, I told him how just that past Sunday I’d talked with two veterans during the coffee hour after worship. Care enough to find out who in your midst has served our country.
  2. Listen. Take time to invite each veteran to share stories with you — and listen. Not every veteran will want to talk about the tough times, but if they feel safe and know you care, they just may open up. And with that, some who are suffering can move toward healing and wholeness.
  3. Learn. Become informed about issues related to veterans. PTSD, moral injury, military sexual trauma and suicide prevention aren’t easy subjects. Some of our veterans are hurting. Your local VA, Vet Centers and Veteran Service Organizations can help you find training so you can be a caring presence for veterans in your congregation and community. This past year, I have been involved in community outreach to faith-based organizations, providing training in suicide prevention. While the focus is on veterans and getting them the help they need, those trained will know what to look for in anyone who may be considering harming themselves or others.
  4. Acknowledge. By acknowledging our veterans, we let them know we’re grateful for their service to our country. This year, Veterans’ Day (Nov. 11) falls on a Sunday. During worship announcements, consider asking those who have served in the military to stand or raise their hands and thanking them publicly. Or you could invite veterans to be present for a Sunday morning coffee hour in their honor. Creative folks in your congregation may come up with other ideas, such as a special lapel pin or some other small token that shows appreciation. You can also invite a retired or active military or VA chaplain to preach. Memorial Day is another important day to remember veterans. If you honor those who have served and died, you communicate to living veterans that they will be remembered, too.
  5. Pray. One can regularly pray for veterans at any time, and especially on Sundays near Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Armistice Day and Pearl Harbor Day. Starting this year, the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs established the first Thursday in November as the annual Day of Prayer and Reflection for Veterans.

While most veterans will appreciate your efforts, it can be good to be sensitive to the fact that some may not want the attention or to be thanked. To quote one suffering from moral injury, “If you knew what I did, you wouldn’t want to thank me.” That’s why getting to know the veterans around us, listening to them and being there for them is important. Whether the person who served is a member of our congregation or in our community, we can show our gratitude. We can stand with them and be sure they know we care.

Julia Shreve
Julia Shreve is the chief chaplain at Fargo (N.D.) VA Health Care System. “When I was growing up, my father would rarely talk about his experience as a medic during WWII. Near the end of his life, I sat with him and asked about his military experience. He opened up, sharing some of the horrors he experienced. I believe it helped both of us — for him to talk and for me to learn from him. We connected in a powerful way. That experience prepared me for working with veterans and serving for many years as a hospice chaplain.”

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