Q: This question has to do with returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. There are a couple who have already come home, and several more deployed now in both countries who are either members of my parish or are part of families that are members. What can I expect when more of these soldiers return, and what can I do in my pastoral care to be helpful to them? I do not have a background with the armed services. I have never been in combat or in anything like the situations they may have faced. I am concerned that I may miss opportunities to provide pastoral care. Do you have some guidelines or some helps that could help me?
A: Your question arrived while I was in Germany, where I was with Lutheran military chaplains who attended a professional-development workshop conducted by my seminary colleague, Dr. Robert Kolb, and me. I am sure I learned more than I taught during this time, since I am more like you in terms of military experience.
Here are some guidelines:
1. A vital and perhaps the most central human need of the returning soldier will be to reintegrate into his or her family. This is often much easier said than done.
While the soldier is away, his family (immediate and extended) has organized itself to get done what previously was done by the soldier. For instance, the soldier may be a husband and father who carried the financial responsibilities and paid the bills, to take a relatively mundane example.
This task has been taken over by someone else. In the returning soldier’s mind and heart, there is likely the expectation that he will return and reoccupy the place he had. But the family is not the same as he left it; nor is he.
Your pastoral sensitivity to the resultant need both of the returning soldier and of the family can be very helpful to them. You have indicated that there are others who have already returned. Perhaps getting the families together would be useful. Or (with their permission), you could offer the already reintegrated family to others for consultation and conversation. This task is vital and should not be left to chance.
A civilian version of this and some helpful hints on reintegration can be found in On the Road Again: Travel, Love, and Marriage by William Hendricks.
2. The congregation also can provide support and help. Appreciation of the service rendered by returning soldiers could be specially noted in the congregation. If this is done, however, be sure to include the spouse, children, and extended family.
All should be recognized. All have carried the struggle of the separation and the anxiety connected with it.
3. Do not assume anything. No one actually knows the experience that the soldier actually has had. Offer your pastoral office as a place to discuss that experience. And should that opportunity present itself, listen carefully, allowing the returning soldier to tell her or his story at their pace and timing. Seek first to understand so that the returning soldier can be as deeply understood as possible. You may not be able to relate experientially to some of what happened, but you can provide an understanding presence, a reminder of the presence of God in Christ. Do not get counseling/theoretically fancy. Just be there — available, listening, understanding, in the name of our precious Lord Jesus Christ.
4. Know your community resources and be prepared to make a referral if that seems indicated. Even if referral is made, stay connected with pastoral care.
I also offer you the name of Chaplain Mark Schreiber, the new director of of the Synod’s Ministry to the Armed Forces. He can serve as an additional resource and can be reached at (314) 996-1346.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Nov. 30, 2004