What Does it Really Mean to Support our Troops?

american-flag_smAnother Veterans Day is upon us. If you’re like me, this is one holiday that doesn’t conjure up nostalgic childhood memories or necessitate family get-togethers. In fact, this will only be my 10th Veterans Day that I remember ever caring about. I became a VA chaplain in 2007 and, a couple years later, began working with churches and communities to bring them together and equip them to help veterans and family members get the help they need. Before I got paid to work with veterans, I confess that Veterans Day came and went with little or no thought. But now November 11th gives me pause as I think about all of the veterans and family members who I’ve tried to help and learn from over the past year.

Much has been said in this contentious election year about veterans and the way we treat them. Many voices have said that we need to respect them, honor them, and help them. Almost everyone agrees we need to support our vets, but nobody talks much about what this means or looks like. During my nearly 10 years of working both in the military and veteran community, and as a civilian in the faith community, I’ve learned a thing or two about what people might mean when they ask us to “support our troops.” Here are some of the possibilities:

1. Support our troops by respecting and recognizing them.
I think this is the most common notion of what it means to support our military and veterans. Veterans have sacrificed much for us. Many have left their families for lengthy deployments. They have risked their lives for our freedom. Our military service members and veterans have taken the oath, worn the uniform, and represented our nation proudly. They deserve our respect and recognition. This type of support often involves yellow ribbons, parades, flags, and recognition at sporting events and in Fourth of July church services. These are all well-intentioned and helpful ways to support those who have served us. The problem with this form of veteran support is that, sometimes, it requires nothing more of me than standing during the national anthem, taking off my ball cap, and holding my corn dog over my heart for 3 minutes. I clap, scream “play ball”, check “support the troops” off my to-do list for the month, and go back to my mindless civilian existence, leaving veterans to fend for themselves until the next kick-off.

2. Support our troops with money and benefits.
For many, supporting our troops means going farther than just recognizing veterans. These people call for us to “put our money where our mouth is,” asking us to provide funding on a national and state level for those who serve and have served us. It has been said that a budget is a “moral document” that truly shows our priorities. Unfortunately, the majority of that funding supports the troops before and during deployment, but does very little to support them when they come home. The funding that does support veterans when they return to their communities usually takes the form of disability compensation and healthcare. The “support with benefits” approach can involve local communities and businesses that offer military discounts, free meals on Veterans Day, and preference for veterans at job fairs.

Supporting both current and past service members with our money and benefits is legitimate and important. But there are problems with this approach too. By focusing all our energy on adequate healthcare and compensation, we can slip into the mindset of “Let’s just drop off our veterans at the VA and let them take care of them. It’s their job.” We forget that real reintegration after war must happen in our local communities and congregations. The responsibility for veterans is always ours. Holding VA and other organizations accountable is important, but our VA can’t do it all. VA was founded in 1934. Who supported our returning warriors before then? For thousands of years, all over the world, local communities were helping their warriors come home and, in most societies, they did a pretty good job of it. The other problem with the “benefit” approach to veteran support is that it focuses exclusively on what we can do for our veterans. There is very little attention given to what our vets can do for us. Those who have served in our military have experience, resilience, and knowledge that none of the rest of us have. We desperately need them to continue to serve as our elder warriors when they come home. The truth is, we probably need them before and after war as much as we need them during war.

3. Support our troops by building real relationships with individual veterans and their families.
In my experience working with veterans and their families, this approach to supporting our veterans is the most meaningful. What means the most to individual veterans is often seemingly small, personal things. It’s mowing a military spouse’s lawn during a deployment. It’s keeping a couple’s kids so they can get ready for a deployment or reconnect after one. It’s taking a veteran by the hand and helping him navigate the complex VA system. It’s helping her find a job, a place to live, or a place where she can get a college degree. Some of this work is easy, but most of it is hard. In my work with pastors and communities across the nation, I’ve found a difference between those who want to “help veterans” plural, and those who are willing to “help the veteran” singular. Many are cool with supporting veterans as a group or a nebulous whole, as this can be done easily through the two approaches above. But the story is different and difficult when it comes to helping the individual, short-tempered, struggling veteran right in front of you, or the terrified parent or spouse of a soldier who is blowing up your phone, desperately trying to get help for their veteran. However, engaging in this approach to supporting our veterans can become truly meaningful for us. Through real relationships, we can make a real difference.

It is also through this relationship approach that our churches and faith communities can play a unique role. We are communities of faith that our isolated veterans and families need desperately. Often, we knew these individuals and their families before they were deployed, and we can notice changes when they come home. Others in our congregations have served in previous wars or have family members who served. Those who have been there themselves can help individual veterans more than any of the rest of us can. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we have been reconciled, “and been given this ministry of reconciliation.” Many of the men and women who have served in our military feel cut off from their family, their God, and even themselves. They need our individual love and reconciliation, which can come in many ways. It can come by leaving them on our Wednesday prayer lists even after they come home. It might mean mentioning PTSD and depression in our sermons and prayers. It could mean working with a local vet group to host a military/veteran spouse support group or Sunday school class in our church. It could mean walking a veteran through a referral to a VA hospital or a provider in the community, people better trained to help. It may be as simple as asking someone if they’ve served, then buying them a coffee and just listening. It could mean inviting a service member or vet to go to a Veterans Day event with you.

Before I became a VA chaplain, Veterans Day was a day when I thought about veterans in general, as a group I was removed from and didn’t know personally. As I approach Veterans Day this year, I think of it more as an individual veteran’s day. I think of Rick who has been struggling for 40 years with what he did in Vietnam, but who is now healing. I think about William, whose hearing was damaged while serving in the military, and it has gotten worse lately. I think about Mr. Jackson, who spread Agent Orange all over Southeast Asia and is now in a hospital bed because of it, trying to make sense of his life. I also think about brave mothers and fathers who are doing whatever they can to help their kids survive after deployment. I think of Lauren, bravely facing her military sexual trauma for the first time and getting seeking help. I think about the countless veterans everywhere who work alongside me in their own communities. They’ve come home and made it their life’s mission to help their brothers and sisters. All of these people find and offer help, not so much through a bumper sticker or a Veterans Day service, but through individual lives and people who care enough to get their hands and hearts dirty. Are you willing to just listen to veterans, accept them where they are, learn from them, and work to get their souls the help they need? All of these things are necessary for a service member, even a former service member, to come all the way home. May it so be for all of us this Veterans Day.

Chaplain Steve Sullivan is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain and leads the VA/Clergy Partnership for Rural Veterans. His interests are in classic rock and the intersection of spiritual and mental health, and pop culture and theology. Steve’s daughter Jenna is a CBF scholar at Wake Forest School of Divinity. Steve lives in Little Rock with his hyper lab, Sunny.

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