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Asking the Clergy: How can faith be a healing experience for veterans?

From left, James J. O'Donnell, Rabbi Yakov Saacks

From left, James J. O'Donnell, Rabbi Yakov Saacks and the Rev. James Barnum. Photo Credit: Anne O'Donnell; Yakov Saacks; Steve Levine

Veterans Day, which falls on Sunday, honors Americans who have served the country in war or peace. Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, is also a reminder of the toll war can take on the women and men who serve. This week’s clergy discuss the role faith can play in veterans’ healing process.

James J. O’Donnell

U.S. Army veteran, mentor at the St. Joseph's College Veterans Resource Center in Patchogue and author of "Sons of Valor, Parents of Faith" (WestBow Press)

In John 14:27, Christ says to his disciples, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” It’s a sad reality for many veterans that serving in the military is a mental health risk. The diagnosis most often associated with combat is post-traumatic stress disorder.

Clinicians have also encountered another condition that impacts veterans: moral injury — damage to an individual’s core morality or moral worldview as a result of a stressful or traumatic life event. Characteristically, moral injury occurs when a person experiences such events as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or being a witness to acts that transgress one's moral beliefs. Moral injury results from a violation of what a person considers right or wrong, and it causes grief, shame and alienation. Returning veterans with religious affiliations may seek their churches, synagogues and mosques to support them in their moral recovery, just as veterans of prior wars have. Caregivers familiar with moral injury acknowledge the role faith can play in the healing process. For Roman Catholics such as myself, the sacrament of reconciliation offers a special chance for healing. For those of other faiths, acceptance and inclusion of veterans can offer comfort. Traditional clinical methods are somewhat limited in addressing moral injury. Faith-based groups offer veterans a community willing to engage in a dialogue about moral issues.  

Rabbi Yakov Saacks

The Chai Center, Dix Hills

According to the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) Judaism permits waging war in certain cases. However, the permissibility to wage war is limited, and the requirement is that one must always seek a just peace before waging war. Therefore, a religious soldier going into battle knowing that he is fighting a just war, either because of self-defense or because of a chance of danger if the threat is not eradicated, is at a certain peace. This does not detract from the fact that even a just war is tragic, traumatizing and has a deleterious effect on any soldier, especially when many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is a beautiful prayer that many soldiers in Israel recite before going into battle. They ask God to save them from being hurt or killed by the enemy, and to imbue them with a sensitivity not to do anything immoral on the battlefield. Here is but one line from their prayer: “Please let their bullets not hurt those children of our enemies whose guardians place them deliberately in danger spots; fire on our soldiers and then shield themselves behind their own people, so as to fault our soldiers when their children get hurt, or even killed.” When you go into war with such a prayer, you will come out a healthy-minded veteran.      

The Rev. James Barnum

Pastor, Bellmore Presbyterian Church

On this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, it is good to pause at 11 a.m., as we will do at my church, and enrich ourselves in moments of silence, thanking God for our veterans. As a nation we owe so much to our veterans and to the families who have sacrificed so much for us. I find in my ministry as pastor and chaplain that so many veterans, because of their faith in God and country, continue to serve in many ways including as firefighters and other first responders.

Healing, which is essential for any person, but especially the veteran, comes from achieving the balance of the journey inward and the journey outward. Veterans can find greater faith and healing by learning to slow down and care for their souls with centering prayer and meditation. As a wounded soldier knows by experience, she or he will need to be taken out of action, even as one is anxious to stay in the fight. The veteran is taught to stand tall, but some veterans truly need to ask for help from their higher power, the first step in being healed as anyone in a 12-step program knows.

Healing comes by allowing veterans the space and time to see the importance of their own story. So let’s take time to listen to veterans, to allow the spirit of God to connect our soul with the wounded soul of another.

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