Welcoming Veterans and Military Families in Our Congregations and Community
The purpose of this document is to encourage greater support and understanding among Unitarian Universalists (UU) for members of the U.S. armed services. Whether our political and moral views lead us to support or oppose the war, as Unitarian Universalists it is important that we give our care and respect to those of our citizens who are risking their lives with courage every day. We owe them no less. We can begin by educating ourselves better about the experience of military personnel and their families in our congregations and communities. From this, we must craft individual and congregational responses that manifest our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the need for compassion in human relations.
UUs and the Military
While Unitarian Universalism promotes peace and has opposed various wars for various reasons, we have never been a strictly pacifist movement. Unitarians and Universalists have served in the armed services in every U.S. war. Honest differences about difficult moral choices have always been part of our congregational life. Yet the lived experience of UU families in our congregations suggests that we are falling short of being welcoming places for all. In particular, families have reported treatment that seems to be unfairly based on stereotypes of people in the military and their families.
Know What Deployed Personnel are Going Through
As a military family waits for news of deployment, an emotional cycle begins. While there is resolve for some, there may also be a period of fear and anger as the news is received. As departure moves closer, a period of withdrawal may occur. Roles in the family will change, as the remaining spouse takes on full responsibility for the family. There is ongoing fear about the safety of the deployed service member. Today, many more women are being deployed which may have significant challenges for families.
In the current conflict, deployments are being extended beyond original expectations. This has had a serious impact on many reservists and National Guard members who may be facing significant job and income loss. Uncertainty about length of deployment is adding significantly to the stress on active duty service members.
While a large percentage of veterans return home without serious injury, re-entry to civilian life can be very difficult. Reunion with one’s spouse and children is often challenging, complicated by everyone’s high expectations about how it will be. Family roles often need to be renegotiated, as the way of doing things may have changed significantly during deployment. Traumatic stress, depression and emotional withdrawal can complicate the adjustment. There may be problems related to employment and finances.
Types of Injuries
While most active duty personnel return home without serious injury, at least 15% of those who have spent time in war zones have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and emotional numbing. Secondary symptoms include abuse of drugs or alcohol, isolation, guilt, and depression. Part of the problem for some is accepting the diagnosis. It is important to understand that this illness is not an indication of weakness or a personal failing. Clinicians in the Veterans Administration now have considerable experience in diagnosing and treating PTSD. Milder stress reactions are more common than PTSD. Physical injuries are especially significant in the Iraq war, in that many people who would have died in previous wars are being saved, but remain very seriously disabled.
Most of us are never confronted with having to shoot or be shot at, kill or be killed. Such an experience is bound to have repercussions in one's spiritual life, understanding of oneself, and the limits of what one can endure. If God is important in one’s life, what does this mean? How does someone understand such experiences ethically? Perhaps people who have had to face such situations can teach the rest of us about humility, survival, and compassion.
What We Can Do
Those who serve us in the military deserve gratitude, honor and respect. While there may be problems associated with being a veteran, there should also be a sense of pride and support for them in the home community. Know that the needs of veterans and their families will vary considerably. Some will want to talk about the experience and want support; some will not. The important thing is to make the offer and be willing to follow through. Veterans may tend to isolate themselves as they are struggling with re-entry. Our task is to reach out and make them welcome.
Tips for Reaching Out
Thank veterans for their service. Ask them how they are doing with a simple question. Take care to respect their desired level of engagement and privacy.
Ask military families in your congregations what support they need, such as childcare, help with food or transportation, a support group, etc. Ask them about their experience as a military family in a UU congregation.
Congregations can arrange events for support of military families, including worship services and welcome home parties.
If you have had arguments with friends or family in the military, reach out to them.
Organize small group meetings and events for returning soldiers who want to share their stories. Such events help the congregation and the people who have been in military service to reconnect, heal, and talk from the heart about the actual conditions Iraq.
People may need help connecting with post-deployment resources, especially because the Veteran's Administration has very limited capacity. Please see below for suggestions.
Sources and Resources
Visit the website of the Unitarian Universalist Military Ministries (UUMM) .
Read the report from the panel of UUs in the military at the UUA General Assembly in Ft. Worth, TX, in June 2005.
See the "Resource Guide: Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom," from Veterans for Common Sense.
The National Center for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in the Dept. of Veteran's Affairs has extensive resources, including fact sheets on relationships, coping with deployment, working with children, and "The Iraq War Clinician Guide, 2nd Edition".
"Courage to Care" offers resources developed by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, including helpful fact sheets on reintegration for couples and providers.