(The purpose of Soul Care Conversation is to create a place to generate dialogue, initiate thoughtful consideration for the challenges our veterans face each day, share ideas of veteran and family well-being and healing, and spark within all of us a call to be engaged with the veteran and caregiver community. Click here to visit the forum and join the conversation!)
Last week as we honored our veterans, I shared a personal reflection on the sacrifice our veterans make while serving our nation. This week, we will discuss the fifth and last response of the faith community, make meaning.
Meaning and purpose are central in human life, particularly when individuals confront highly stressful and traumatic life experiences. Some researchers have suggested that traumatic events frequently challenge one’s core beliefs about safety, self-worth, and the meaning of life.
For individuals whose core values are spiritually grounded, traumatic events may give rise to questions about the fundamental nature of the relationship between God and humankind, and between God and self. Survivors may question their belief in a loving, all-powerful God when the innocent are subjected to traumatic victimization. In this way, traumatic experiences may become a starting point for discussion of the many ways in which survivors define what it is to have “faith.“
Trauma can shake one’s faith. The veteran wants to understand why. Why did the traumatic event occur? Why did they survive? The journey to understand the why can be a long process for the veteran.
Trauma interferes with the practices that embody our systems of belief. The soul of veterans often demonstrate the ineffectiveness of their prayers, their worship, the value of scripture, and their faith. For many of our veterans, their traumatic experiences with which they struggle will affect their understanding of God and faith. The pain and terror of trauma can infuse such doubt in God and God’s faithfulness that the veteran reaches a point of denying God and their faith. The veteran can question God’s ability to intervene in the situation. The veteran can feel that God is punishing them and blame God for the loss.
For others, the presence of a meaning-making system, such as faith, serves as a protective factor when trauma strikes. Faith and spirituality can assist the veteran in developing a sense that love shapes God’s activity; patient, persevering, and long lasting. It is through love that God responds to a broken world.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that the primary motivation of a person is to discover meaning in life. Throughout this powerful book Frankl insists that meaning in life can be discovered under all circumstances, even in the most miserable experiences of tragedy and loss. Through his own experience Frankl shared that people can discover meaning through doing a deed, experiencing value, and even by experiencing suffering. Meaning making is a key component in trauma healing.
During my deployment to Iraq, 2003-2004, I experienced a wounding of the soul. The circumstances of these wounds I have shared in previous conversations. My symptoms of soul loss were the following;
- shattered self esteem
- finding it difficult to pray
- no spirit of thankfulness
- seeing no value in scripture
- not interested in attending worship
- deep self-doubt
These symptoms would ebb and flow for 8 years. At times I would find myself experiencing a sense of peace through the ritual of worship, or a sense of healing through a spiritual retreat, or a sense of community when with other combat veterans.
However, I noticed that many of my symptoms subsided when I began my tour in Afghanistan as the Command Chaplain for all US Forces. Possibly because the mission was so daunting that my focus was on the task at hand. But, I believe it was something much deeper.
It became clearer after my re-deployment. I was re-assigned into a new position where I experienced very little significance, meaning and purpose. I began to exhibit similar symptoms that I had following my Iraq deployment.
I finally recognized that I needed professional help to work through what I was feeling and experiencing. During the course of these last four years it has been the wise council of a therapist and the listening ears of fellow veterans in a support group that have assisted me on a healing journey. But I have discovered that at the center of all of this has been re-discovering meaning and purpose.
After my retirement from active duty, JustPeace hired me as staff to be the Coordinator for the Soul Care Initiative. Soul Care was a new emphasis for the United Methodist Church’s resource agency for Conflict Transformation and Mediation. My responsibilities have brought me great meaning and purpose.
But something else happened. I conducted my first workshop in a small college town in central Pennsylvania. As I look back on that first workshop experience, I believe I provided the participants a very sterile/clinical approach to trauma and trauma care. However, I began to include my personal story in my training presentation. This was not easy to do, but I thought it important to be authentic to those who trusted me to share such important information.
A year later I conducted a workshop in a community in close proximity to where my first workshop occurred. A person who attended my first workshop was in attendance. He commented that he was appreciative how I made myself vulnerable to the participants and wished I had done the same the year prior.
I then recognized that I was on my healing journey. Not that sharing the harsh realities of war is ever easy, but in revealing my journey with others proved to me that this was an important step. My healing journey took a big step when I discovered purpose and meaning for my life as I shared my story.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FAITH COMMUNITY
The faith community can become a part of the veteran’s journey to find the answer to “why?” The faith community can engage veterans in their journey toward finding meaning and purpose by;
- Offering numerous interest groups – Research has suggested writing workshops and art therapy have value in spiritual healing. But there are numerous opportunities such as; rock climbing, bicycling, motor cycle riding, hiking, and other high adventure activities.
- Providing veterans opportunities for service – This gives them a connection beyond themselves and an opportunity to serve others. Invite veterans to participate in a Habitat for Humanity project, a Volunteer in Mission project, or some other work project that allows the veteran to give back. There are some groups whose focus are veterans; Team Rubicon, Volunteers of America, and Grace Under Fire, are some examples.
What examples can you offer, whether an interest group or volunteer opportunity, where you have seen success? Have you found other methods for veterans to find meaning and purpose?
This concludes our conversation on the faith community response. Next week we will begin to explore the various veteran support agencies that the faith community can collaborate with in veteran care. Until then, thank you for the conversation…