Loving, Not Thanking, Veterans

By Titus Peachey and Jason Boone

(Reprinted from Mennonite World Review November 11, 2014)

Veterans Day, established to celebrate those who served in the armed forces, has a more festive atmosphere than Memorial Day, which remembers those who died while serving in the armed forces.

Veterans Day is a collective “thank you” that takes on forms like closing the Post Office, parades and other symbolic gestures of gratitude.

But for many veterans, “thanks for your service” is not a welcome greeting.

Veterans who engaged in the horrors of combat, or witnessed such horrors, can carry the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds of war far beyond the length of their service. To be “thanked” for the service that wounded them can create more turmoil for the veteran.

As followers of Jesus, we don’t want to “thank” veterans for their service.

We want to love and be loved by these men and women who have been wounded by the forces of violence and war. Together we want to find wholeness and grow in our experience of a loving, gracious God.

We know more today than ever before about the wounds veterans carry in the aftermath of service. The physical wounds are often apparent and can seem to be the most painful challenge a veteran can face. But it’s often the emotional and spiritual wounds that torment many veterans after their service and propel the epidemic of veteran suicides (22 a day), substance abuse, domestic violence and other injurious behaviors.

Trauma isn’t a condition that afflicts the weak or one that can be easily shed when a veteran leaves the armed forces. Moral Injury, the wounding of conscience that can leave veterans with guilt, shame and feeling like an enemy of God, is not healed by a brass band playing patriotic songs and a parade around the town square.

Loving veterans means to acknowledge the wounds veterans carry and walk alongside them on the path towards healing. This journey isn’t about ignoring the pain or seeking to paint over it with lofty ideals of sacrifice and service. It means building community with veterans and creating spaces where we can all wrestle with the guilt and sin of war and seek to know a loving God.

This love isn’t an annual event or federally mandated. It’s a long-term mutual relationship formed through sharing meals, by serving, through worshipping God in community, celebrating life’s sweet moments and mourning the bitter. It’s providing a safe space for veterans to share, if they wish, the stories of violence, loss and camaraderie they carry. These are the elements of healing many veterans need in the aftermath of combat. And they aren’t always found in the Veterans Administration hospitals or in the confines of therapy or pharmacology. These spaces for healing can be created in the local church.

As we continue on in the endless wars that began over a decade ago, our call as peacemakers continues to speak, act, pray against that violence. But as the men and women who experience that violence return home, our mandate grows to include helping them find peace and healing.

From a distance, it may seem strange for an historic peace church to build communities with veterans. But it surely is no stranger than the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ clarion explanation of who it is we are called to love.

Many churches in Mennonite Church USA are already working on building relationships with veterans. Churches in Oklahoma, Florida, Virginia and New York among others are engaged in the creative peacemaking of welcoming veterans in the church community. For churches wanting to understand the wounds of war and explore ways of relating to veterans, Mennonite Central Committee and the Peace and Justice Support Network (a joint venture of MC USA and Mennonite Mission Network) are offering a six-week Sunday School curriculum called “Returning Veterans, Returning Hope: Seeking Peace Together,” that can be found this month at pjsn.org and mcc.org/veterans-curriculum.

We pray that Veteran’s Day 2014 is the start of a new era where veterans aren’t thanked for service one day and left to deal with their wounds alone the next. Instead, let’s begin the long journey of healing with veterans, walking together, seeking Shalom.

Jason Boone is on staff at the Peace and Justice Support Network and Titus Peachey is the peace education coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

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