Photo Courtesy of Frank Draper Jr. Website
Wounded WWII SoldiersWe're only now coming to understand how seriously all combat veterans are wounded in spirit as well.
As stunning as it still is to me, as of Dec. 4, 2012, my beloved father, George Ernest Buie Jr., has been dead for 41 years. He died suddenly at age 45, just 20 days short of his 46th birthday. The official cause of his death was listed as heart disease, but in the intervening years I have come to realize that what really killed him were the lingering effects of his military service in World War II. He was wounded in both body and spirit in that war, and those wounds shortened his life.
Today, we know so much more about the lasting impact of war on soldiers, and how every warrior comes home wounded, whether or not the wounds show on their bodies. I honor his service to his country, but I still lament the fact that such service took him from his family and his community so soon.
And there is so much to lament. We never had any more chances to mark his Dec. 24 birthday with non-Christmas-y celebration. He never knew his grandchildren, three grandsons and two granddaughters. He never saw his own son and daughter grow into maturity, marry, create families and be responsible citizens. He left a young widow who never really recovered from his untimely death. And he left undone all the things he could have accomplished, for he was a man of great wisdom, commitment and talent, and of tremendous love and generosity of spirit.
Now that I have reached the age he was denied, I see his death in greater context, thanks to the witness of United Methodist military chaplains. Even before the start of America's now 10 years of war, United Methodist chaplains were pleading with churches to set up ministries to aid returning veterans. Their pleas were answered in some churches, but in too many places they fell on deaf ears. I think we failed to answer this call to service because it comes laden with so much political baggage about the rightness of wars. I think we have been so selfish about our own political reputations that we have failed to respond to this clear need for ministry in the name of Christ.
Now there is a new focus on the psychic wounds of war, propelled by social and economic realities. The statistics are grim. Consider these excerpts from a New York Times article by Timothy Williams from June 8, 2012:
The suicide rate among the nation’s active-duty military personnel has spiked this year, eclipsing the number of troops dying in battle and on pace to set a record annual high since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the Pentagon said Friday [June 1].
Suicides have increased even as the United States military has withdrawn from Iraq and stepped up efforts to provide mental health, drug and alcohol, and financial counseling services.
The military said Friday that there had been 154 suicides among active-duty troops through Thursday, a rate of nearly one each day this year. ... That number represents an 18 percent increase over the 130 active-duty military suicides for the same period in 2011. There were 123 suicides from January to early June in 2010, and 133 during that period in 2009, the Pentagon said.
The economic pressures on active military and veterans add to their stress. Aside from the low pay of rank-and-file military, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year:
The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001--a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans--was 12.1 percent in 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. The jobless rate for all veterans was 8.3 percent. Twenty-six percent of Gulf War-era II veterans reported having a service-connected disability in August 2011, compared with about 14 percent of all veterans.
Grim statistics indeed. What these realities don't touch on, however, is what the church has historically provided, namely spiritual support and yes, forgiveness and redemption for the tragic moral injuries that soldiers incur during combat. The church is finally beginning to recognize the crucial role it must play in helping veterans return successfully to their families and communities. The opportunity here is not solely to give emotional support and advocacy for active military, veterans and their loved ones. Nor is the need limited to providing compassionate listening to those burdened by combat experience. The call is to make lasting peace by helping veterans heal from their spiritual and moral war injuries.
One of the most hopeful signs for this ministry is the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, a Disciples of Christ-related seminary in Fort Worth, TX. While focused primarily on scholarly research and theological education for clergy, the Soul Repair Center also offers local churches the opportunity to become certified teaching congregations in helping repair moral injury. To its credit, the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society co-sponsored the 2011 national conference on moral injury that led to the establishment and dedication of the Soul Repair Center this past October. However, a recent check of the Church & Society website showed no follow-up action since the 2011 conference.
Likewise, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the United Methodist agency that endorses chaplains for military service, lists general resources for the support of active military, veterans and their families. However, these resources offer little help toward the fundamental issue of healing the wounded spirits who come home from war.
These reflections may seem too somber for Advent, the time when we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Christ Child. Yet Advent is also a time of repentance, of resolving to live in new ways in anticipation of Christ coming again. We who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, whose birth in human form we will celebrate again soon, could give baby Jesus a joyous gift if we commit to heal war's lasting moral wounds.
I only wish that someone had known this 41 years ago before my father succumbed to the effects of his war. I cannot embrace him again in this life, but perhaps soon I can embrace others like him in hope and healing.