Last week I wrote about soldier suicides, and other articles and blogs in America simultaneously were focusing on what we as a church can do to support and keep our young people in the church. So it seems a natural follow-up to focus on what the Church can do to provide ministry, belonging, and fellowship to those who serve in the military.
In view of a theme of "talking directly with young people ourselves," I am happy to present some excellent ideas from Ms. Janice Feng, who is a student in my Psychological Testing class at Marist College. Each week students in class write a paper and may choose sources from our textbook, class discussion, academic or popular sources, or blogs or articles in America (in which they have received complimentary online subscriptions for the semester). In class we recently studied the role of psychology as a profession in World War I and World War II, especially the development of the psychological profession in VA Hospitals in World War II to help treat psychologically traumatized soldiers.
Janice's observations moved me with their directness, immediacy, and clarity;
Bombs dropping, guns shooting, objects exploding; these surroundings would make it hard for any individual to stay stable. I’m sure it would be difficult to find a person that did not agree that being in the military is certainly a trying experience. However, just how trying seems to only be understood by those who have personally experienced the training, pressure, warfare, etc. Having many close friends serving in the military, reading this past week’s blog posting on military suicides really hit home. I not only wonder what more our churches can do for these individuals who serve, but what our society can offer.
The nearly dozen friends and acquaintances that I know in the military fall into three groups when considering their reason for joining: the “Original”, the “Follower”, and the “Why Not”. One Original is my friend “Bob” who loves this country, believes in what the military is about and has known his entire life that his purpose was to be a Marine. Many other soldiers admire him, join up because of him, and become Followers. The Why Not group consists of those who are lost in life, haven’t discovered what they are meant to do, realize the military’s purpose is a good one, and for reasons such as financial stability, prestige, or it just being an option, decide to become soldiers. All the people I speak of are not from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. Each could get into college if they applied. Sadly, out of the dozen or so people I know in the military, there are only two whom I believe are right now where they are meant to be.
The reason for such emphasis on an individual’s impetus in joining may help us to understand the existence of psychological and emotional problems that at times result in suicides. Although this choice of career can be a rewarding experience based on the knowledge of sacrificing oneself for a good cause, it can also be without saying a very negative and exhausting environment. More so than many other careers, one is more likely to experience burnout quicker than normal. For a person who is certain and passionate about serving, the stress and hardships that the job brings does not hit as hard because in the back of their mind they believe in what they are fighting for. For many of those who have joined for other reasons, they will more quickly become mentally and psychologically exhausted due to lack of purpose and passion. It is clear even to me how each of my friends have been affected as the more time they serve passes. Some, still in training already are thinking of what career move they are going to make after their term is up, while others like Bob are already training to reenlist before his term is over.
Specialist Armando G. Aguilar Jr. is an example of what happened to a soldier who joined the Army for reasons besides for the love of the Army (Van Ornum, 2011). I am trying to wrap my mind around how I would feel if my heart was in music, yet my day to day job was to search for bombs in a war torn country. How fast my heart would race at the thought of possible incoming death at every moment! Without the confidence of knowing it was God’s plan for me to be there, I would never put myself in that situation. I would much rather work a few extra years in mindless jobs for the money than to have my sanity and stability destroyed. I am sure that not all the military suicides result because lack of passion and inner conviction of being in the right place, but I strongly believe lack of these inner qualities can lead to self-destruction.
Rewinding back to thoughts expressed in the America Magazine posting, I do wonder how the church can service those either still serving in the military or who are back to civilian lives. This past Sunday in church, we had a speaker who is a Major in the United States Army. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being involved in a explosion caused by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan that left him completely bind with a large dent in his skull. His testimony of losing and regaining this rock-solid faith he once had due to the accident was inspiring to me and the crowd which included a friend who was on leave for the time being. I believe that if there could be programs for those with faith within the military run by speakers such as this major, the mental well-being of many soldiers would be much more stable. It could be a safe outlet for everything a soldier may be going through. Currently there are not many ways people of faith can fellowship with one another, and this sort of program would offer a community where trust and support exist.
It is my hope that someone reading Janice's ideas today might be able to put the idea she expressed in her last paragraph into practice. Thank you, Janice, and never underestimate the role of your presence in the lives of the young people whom you know that are serving our country.
William Van Ornum