Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal

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“I stood at the bus station with my suitcase like an alien in a strange world,” shares a Vietnam veteran. “Just a week earlier I was in a bloody firefight where two buddies died just before they were to come home, and now I was home alone and expected to act normal.”

Reintegration into civilian life may be the biggest battle of a service person’s lifetime. The nature of current-day conflicts makes it all the more exacting. The 1.6 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are spending years, not months, in combat and are in constant danger of being killed or wounded. “In this war (Iraq), you don’t really engage a single enemy, so everybody becomes the enemy,” explains an Iraq War veteran. “You have a generation of vets coming home from a fight where everybody was a threat. The mental health challenge is going to be tremendous.”

Indeed, a 2007 study of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found that nearly 40 percent had symptoms of mental health problems. Shame and guilt are commonplace among vets, who may feel they’ve violated their conscience and religious convictions by taking a human life. Many find it’s hard to turn off the guarded wariness that helped them survive in combat in order to trust family and friends again. Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, isolation, homelessness and suicidal tendencies are other real, yet often invisible, wounds of war.

Lutheran pastor, former Minnesota National Guard chaplain and retired lieutenant colonel John Sippola has walked with many veterans through the reintegration and healing process. He’s recently co-authored a book, “Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal,” to equip other pastors, parish nurses and lay leaders within the church to do the same. The book was printed and distributed, in part, through a Wheat Ridge Ministries Congregational Health and Hope grant.

“Churches are a natural bridge (for returning vets) because of our ministry of reconciliation,” John explains. “That’s our job: to reconnect people to community and life. Whenever Jesus forgave somebody, he often told them to go present themselves to the priest. The purpose there is that they be reintegrated into community.”

John adds that the forgiveness offered through Christ brings healing to the whole person and is unavailable from secular sources. “(Vets often) don’t have the capacity to forgive themselves,” John explains. “Often an external message of forgiveness – from God or a pastor representing that moral authority – can break through.”

Churches also are strategically located throughout the country, says John. “Too many soldiers are falling through the cracks… Most soldiers who don’t have access to the kind of care they need are in rural areas. That’s where churches are.”

For that reason, John has an ambitious goal to distribute a copy of “Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal,” to every congregation in the country. The book reviews the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war and provides helpful and hopeful opportunities for connection and healing within the church context. It coaches the pastor or friend on how to listen to a veteran’s story and offer genuine encouragement, prayer and support. It suggests 12 congregational exercises throughout the regular church calendar that create a climate of healing for veterans. It also includes several screening and assessment tools as well as referral sources for the returning service person. “Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal,” is co-authored by Amy Blumenshine, Donald Tubesing and Valerie Yancey and can be ordered at www.welcomethemhomebook.com.

The church John pastors, Elim Lutheran Church of Blackhoof, Minnesota, is one such rural congregation that has been hit hard by the aftershocks of war. Several congregants had relatives killed in Iraq. The church of about 80 Sunday worshipers has adopted the book project whole-heartedly, providing many volunteer hours in its production and distribution.

The collaboration with Wheat Ridge Ministries was equally significant to the book’s completion. “What Wheat Ridge did which other funders don’t is build in accountability,” John explains. “I felt personally accountable to Wheat Ridge as did the congregation. That helped us bring the project to fruition. Wheat Ridge also continued to support us by providing great ideas. They went the extra mile, including distributing 450 books to Lutheran churches in the neighborhood of key army bases.”

Thank you for your continued support of Wheat Ridge Ministries. When we foster resources like “Welcome Them Home, Help Them Heal,” we are equipping God’s servants to answer the call on their lives and become conduits of hope and healing. It is our great privilege to serve our Lord and our country’s courageous patriots together with you.

Written by Jennifer Halupnik