How do I love my neighbour? #3 The veterans blog

One of the privileges of my role is meeting people engaged in ministry and mission well beyond my personal experience – to learn, to be challenged, and to have my horizons broadened.

Last week, for example, I was asked to participate in the commissioning of Rev Dr Murray Earl as the convenor of the Assembly Defence Force Chaplaincy Committee, and our representative to the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services. The service of commissioning was held in Duntroon, Canberra, and the congregation was largely made up of military chaplains and their families.

When I meet with ministers serving in specialist areas often they want to tell me about their distinctive ministry – what makes what they do special. They want me to understand them; and I’m eager to do that too. But when I had some time with the UCA military chaplains after the service they had a different priority. They wanted me to know about a particular ministry opportunity that is now before the whole church but is barely recognised. And they wanted me to tell you about it too.

The last 10 years has seen about 60,000 troops – men and women of the ADF – deployed to the Middle East. As the Australian Defence Forces are withdrawn from overseas deployments in 2014, many of them will be seeking discharge.

Not all those young men and women are combatants. Some were cooks, clerks, medics, support staff etc. But these young servicemen and women have all seen the horrors of war. Some of those women and men have deployed multiple times. In other words, they have done more than one stint of 6 to 8 months in the war zone. Most of those returned service men and women have been exposed to situations that would challenge their own meaning, values and understanding of life. Often the things they have seen and experienced have had a profound impact upon them – and their families.

During service life ADF members have some form of ministry from their service chaplains. Chaplaincy is provided ecumenically in the ADF, and it includes a contribution of 22 full time and 30 part time chaplains from the UCA. Although, like most Australians, these young people often have had little or no previous contact with the church, chaplains become a normal part of their experience in the ADF and a significant support as they deal with life’s challenges – from the mundane challenges of growing into adulthood to the traumas of working in a war zone.

As they are discharged they will disperse throughout Australia – into your neighbourhood, your town, in the remotest parts of the continent and in the inner city. The ADF chaplains will have much less opportunity to support them but they are now used to looking to the clergy for pastoral care and support. As a truly national church, and as part of the wider church in Australia, we have a tremendous opportunity to serve these veterans.

So what can we do?

First, our congregations need to be open and welcoming to our former service men and women. We need to be ready to show grace and tolerance to these people who will be unfamiliar with the way we “do church” – the way we talk, think and organise ourselves.

Further, many will have lived through some extraordinarily difficult situations. While many will have learnt things through those experiences that will enrich out fellowship, some will have particular needs in the areas of spiritual and mental health. So we need to be ready for that.

Find out about the transient defence community and the networks that people seek upon discharge.

It would be important to cooperate with Ex-Service Organisations (ESOs) such as the RSL, Legacy, and the Vietnam Veterans Associations (in many places the VVAs have opened their doors to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans). The ESO community and networks will have invaluable experience and services to share. In turn, our congregations and the UCA network are able to offer very welcome help.

Ministers and lay leaders need to have at least some basic training in the areas of mental health first aid, and in suicide awareness, prevention and intervention. And when this training has been completed we should make it known to the ESOs.

Seek out relationships with UCA chaplains stationed in your region. They can support you in serving veterans, but you can support them too by becoming the kind of congregations and Ministers that chaplains will confidently guide discharging members and families toward.

[This blog is based on advice given to me by Rev Charles Vesely, an Army chaplain and Senior Instructor at the Defence Force Chaplains College, Latchford Barracks, Victoria.)Australian troops in Afghanistan

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