July 2011
Connecting Generations

Care for the Troops

Every day, in airports across the nation, men and women in uniform are applauded for their military service. What a pleasant difference from my war. I was a combat aviator in Vietnam, and spent the final days of that conflict as a prisoner in Hanoi. When I returned to the States in 1973, I was accepted as a postulant from the Diocese of West Texas, attended the School of Theology at Sewanee, Tennessee, and have served the church as a priest since 1976 (and the USAF Reserves as a chaplain until 1999).

For the past 35 years I have made it a practice to include the names of parish family and friends who died in service in the prayers of the people, and have asked veterans to stand to be recognized on the Sunday closest to Veterans Day. While I have always had a personal ministry to military veterans, it was not until 2007 that I asked the Brotherhood of St. Andrew (http://www.brotherhoodofstandrew.org/province4.php?p4=Georgia) to engage in their own ministry to the men and women of our armed forces as well as to their families. The results have been most gratifying. The Brotherhood immediately began to reach out to combat veterans living in our area, discovering not only that there was a need, but also that few others were engaged in meeting that need.

Two other parishioners organized Care For The Troops (www.careforthetroops.org) to train faith communities to publicly welcome military members and veterans and to recognize the wide variety of spiritual, fiscal, social, psychological, and family concerns that are particularly heightened during times of deployment and family separation. Care For The Troops also trains local professional counselors throughout Georgia to recognize and treat the lingering effects of deployment, separation, combat, and death of friend and foe.Through their network of member congregations, they have developed a guide for establishing congregational ministries to and for military members, veterans and their families, along with a description of such ministries being conducted in the congregations. The guide is posted on the web site and can be accessed, adapted, and used by anyone with a desire to engage in similar ministry.

Our urgency for military ministry has grown as the war against terror has lingered. There are very few of our citizens in uniform – only about 1% – so they are very easy to be “missing in action” from the mission and ministry of the Church. Second, with the National Guard and Reserves as actively deployed into combat as their Active Component counterparts, they and their families face unique hardships. The Guard and Reserve member has to leave not only family and home behind, but also a civilian job that may not be there upon his or her return from deployment. As a result, they return to high family stress, loss of employment, alienation from peers, and social disorientation. These are all areas where faith communities have a certain level of care and expertise. The specific ministries begun in this parish grew out of our own spiritual life and have been designed to meet the needs of people in our own state.

Because I serve on advisory boards for both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, I have been able to give considerable insight and guidance to the parish members who have a heart for this ministry. Some of that work can be very frustrating. For instance, wounded warriors with some level of traumatic brain injury may not be able to make good decisions, respond adequately to offers for help, or cooperate well with the people who are there to support them. Tremendous patience and Christian good will are definite assets.

While this ministry can be very difficult, it has also benefited the parish in a variety of positive ways. Other veterans, some estranged from the church for a number of years, have returned to worship and ministry. People who have come to believe that the Church cares little for the men and women committed to our mutual defense, have had to reevaluate that idea and are becoming part of our other ministries in the parish. As a result, the congregation has a renewed sense of its place and its leadership in the community and in the Diocese. In the last four years, the parish I serve has experienced a 30% growth in average Sunday attendance. I am confident that ministry to our veterans, service members and their families is part of that growth.

The Rev. Robert Certain is rector at St. Peter & St. Paul Episcopal Church in Marietta, Georgia. Author of Unchained Eagle: From Prisoner of War to Prisoner of Christ, he is the founder and president of the Unchained Eagle Memorial and Benevolent Society, Inc.


This article is part of the July 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Connecting Generations