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The Silent War at Home

  • Jocelyn Green Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2009 19 May
The Silent War at Home

When Frank Vozenilek returned from the Viet Nam war in 1971, from the pulpit, his pastor called him a murderer (Vozenilek was a medic and never killed anyone). Vozenilek vowed he'd never set foot in a church again, a promise he kept for 15 years while dealing with the fallout from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including two failed marriages.

In 1970, after 14 months in Viet Nam, James Knudsen returned home as a decorated combat veteran. A Christian and regular churchgoer, he has suffered from PTSD ever since, resulting in long-term unemployment and severe depression. In 1999, his wife of 20 years left him.

Both Knudsen and Vozenilek now minister in the Cedar Rapids/Marion, Iowa, area, assisting churches to help veterans with PTSD.

"The church dropped the ball on us," says Vozenilek, who works with veterans through Point Man International Ministries ( "We cannot afford to drop the ball on this generation."

A call to action

To be fair, PTSD wasn't fully recognized until 1984, well after Viet Nam. Today, it's a well-known condition in which reactions to a traumatic or life-threatening event continually recur or even intensify, even after the danger is past. The main symptoms include traumatic memories/nightmares, hypervigilance, aggression, emotional detachment, depression, and avoidance of crowds. It often leads to substance abuse, chronic unemployment, and homelessness. The suicide rate among those with PTSD is almost twice the national average, and two out of three of their marriages fail.

Though studies show that nearly one in five veterans from Iraq and Afghan-istan suffer from PTSD, experts say the numbers are likely much higher, since many deny having it either because they don't recognize it or they worry it could end their military careers. Reported wartime PTSD cases jumped roughly 50 percent in 2007. Yet only about 30 percent of those go to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals or centers for help.

In The Combat Trauma Healing Manual, used by Bridges of Healing, Campus Crusade's Military Ministry, Chris Adsit notes that a large percentage of troops serving in the current war are National Guard and Reservists, which means they don't stay attached to their bases for long. "We have wounded warriors scattered all over our country, infiltrating all of our society," Adsit says. "There is only one other entity that infiltrates all of our society, and that is the church. The government resources are already overwhelmed. If the church doesn't step up and offer aid, I really don't see much hope for these heroes."

After Andrea Westfall's 10-month deployment to Kuwait with the Oregon Army National Guard in 2002-03, she began showing symptoms of PTSD but didn't seek help, and was not diagnosed until she had been home a year. Looking for answers to her questions about God, Westfall turned to the leadership at Springfield Faith Center in Springfield, Oregon.

"I was told that if I began presenting issues related to 'war,' I would have to go to the VA," she says. "I was already going to the Vet Center for PTSD! What I needed was for someone to walk me through this new spiritual journey and not to be judged, condemned, or thrown pat answers."

Westfall tried several other churches before giving up. But when she was invited to be a guest at Times Square Church in New York for a PTSD training seminar, the sincere hearts of the senior pastors restored her hope that churches can show legitimate care to vets.

Supporting the troops

"PTSD is affecting every church in America," says Eric Garcia, co-founder of the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries. "The problem is, the church just doesn't know what to do. The key is educating the church and helping them understand how they can play this key role in people's lives."

That's where several nonprofit organizations can offer support. The Sanctuary (, founded by Jon Norsworthy near Washington, D.C., has retreat facilities where veterans come for reflection and a safe place to share their trauma and receive spiritual guidance.

"Most people don't talk about the spiritual disengagement that accompanies PTSD," says Norsworthy. "There are a lot of unanswered questions about how to justify what they've seen with the God we worship. It's not a time for pat answers and clichés."

Marshéle Carter Waddell and her husband, Mark, a retired U.S. Navy seal, share their story of dealing with PTSD through Bridges to Healing, which has worked with more than 100 churches in the last year to provide training.

"A lot of churches are really trying," says Marshéle, author of Hope for the Home Front. "In the last five years, I think the tide is turning. Resources are available now that weren't there before."

Norsworthy says the majority of churches he visits do not have PTSD ministries. "The folks who are doing the most work in helping with PTSD recovery are liberal nonbelievers."

After participating in Bridges to Healing training at Times Square Church, Dr. Bill Butler, leader of the church's military ministry, said, "Most of us didn't realize the scope of the problem and how deep the wounds can affect somebody who's been in combat. It gave us a wake-up call to help serve the military." One of the many services Times Square offers is regular gatherings where veterans can develop friendships and share stories.

Churches in action

Gradually, churches are stepping up to the plate. In April 2008, after learning a young church member became suicidal due to PTSD, pastor Lyle Seger of Wesley United Methodist Church (Hadley, Mass.) co-hosted a workshop for 20 pastors with the Massachusetts nonprofit Veterans Education Project.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (elca) passed a resolution in 2007 to provide a supportive environment for returning veterans and their families, and the elca Minneapolis Area Synod developed The Coming Home Collaborative for those concerned with the psychological and spiritual healing of veterans.

Viet Nam vet and PTSD sufferer John Blehm and his wife, Karen, help teach classes at Skyway Church in Goodyear, Arizona, for those with PTSD and their family members. The church is also planning to bring professional counseling at an affordable price onto the church campus.

But other churches have been slow to respond. For example, Knudsen organized a PTSD training session in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 2008, inviting local churches to hear representatives from the Iowa City VA Hospital, Iowa National Guard, Veterans Affairs, and Point Man International Ministries. Though 60 churches were invited, leaders from only seven attended.

The low attendance didn't surprise Brian Fink, Desert Storm veteran and associate pastor at River of Life Ministries in Cedar Rapids. "Right now this is a very small blip on the radar screen, but I think caring for those with PTSD is going to be the next big thing in church ministry," he says.

That includes big churches. Willow Creek Community Church is in the process of putting together its first support communities for military members and families at their campus in South Barrington, Illinois.

Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California, hired Eric Lewis as their first pastor of military ministries in April 2008. Lewis also works with other churches in the region, helping them start their own military ministries.

Complicating matters for churches is the fact that those with PTSD are not likely to speak up about it. "Churches most often find out only after the soldiers have significant problems," says Nate Self, a decorated veteran with PTSD who fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq. (For more on Self's story, see "I Hated Myself" on page 30.)

How your church can help

Vozenilek says churches are not responsible to aggressively seek out those who might have the disorder. "However, church laypeople can be trained to identify the outward displays and the internal feelings of a combat veteran," he says. "This basic training can be enough to help recognize the problems and get prayer support, make referrals to support systems, and be able to offer support as a concerned layperson within the community."

Captain Jeffrey Farr, an Iowa National Guard chaplain, points out that while it's crucial to know when to refer vets to outside resources, churches are also mission-critical to recovery. "Help veterans address not just 'why' their experiences happened, but to what extent can this be used," he says. "Do not turn them away because you feel like you have nothing to offer. They need you, and they need the God that you represent."

Al Guerra, pastor of the 400-member Hispanic congregation at Wheaton (Ill.) Bible Church, says that when veterans come home from a war, "They often just need basic assistance—rides, food, help in getting out of debt, upkeep in the home. But churches should form a network to find the families of soldiers and show up at their front doors asking, 'Is there anything we can do for you?'"

Lisa Jaycox, senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, says that the more stress a family is under, the harder it is to recover from PTSD. Like Guerra, she notes that any support that churches can offer the family is helpful, from mowing the lawn and offering meals to providing financial guidance.

Vozenilek feels that churches basically turned their backs on the Viet Nam veterans. "My greatest fear today is not that the churches are turning their backs, but that they won't care for veterans because they simply don't know what to do," he says. "There are certainly churches out there doing it right. But they're few and far between."

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