Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson for The Christian Citizen

During seminary, I had the privilege as a chaplain intern to do Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a Veterans hospital. This was my first unit of CPE, and while I knew what I would be doing, I had no idea of the depth of ministry that I would be involved in. CPE students were assigned units in the hospital to provide ministry. When I received my assignment, I gasped because it was far beyond my experience in ministry and life. I was assigned to the psychiatric unit, a locked unit in a building separate from the main hospital building. Patients on this unit suffered from maladies including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and drug addictions.

This experience impacted me and opened my eyes to the dark side of a veteran’s life, and to the realities of ministry to psychiatric patients. My familiarity with veterans, with combat experience, did not extend beyond my family. My relatives shared some of their experiences, but they did not share their struggles with life after having served in the military and returning home. They did not share the countless comrades they lost during those experiences, or the emotional, spiritual, and psychological toll that war took on them. Many of them did not have words to express the darkness they saw, lived, and that continued to haunt them. War is an evil that haunts men and women who serve in the military for the rest of their lives. Assigned to the psychiatric unit of the VA hospital, I was not prepared for what I would encounter.

In the late 1990s, the Gulf War was winding down, and Operation Desert Storm was considered a success by the United States government. However, the horrors of that conflict were not reported. The stories that those soldiers had to live with were not included in the victory celebration. During CPE at the VA hospital, I encountered a mother of two teenagers, who served in Operation Desert Storm. Prior to going to Iraq, she pursued her education while working part-time. She was a Reservist at the time the Gulf War erupted. It was her plan to serve as a Reservist and continue to pursue her education. She had no idea that she would be serving in a war. She was stationed in the Middle East near Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. I got to know this woman as she struggled with PTSD and opioid addiction. After the war she was unable to function as she did prior. She found it difficult to care for her children and relate to her husband. This was interesting to me because we often hear about men going to war and returning changed. This was the era when women gained more opportunities to serve in combat. As I listened to this woman’s story, she cried because she desired to be able to connect with her family, raise her children, and be the mother that they needed. My heart broke as I walked with this woman through her pain. I saw her weekly during my time at the VA hospital, and she was in a spirituality group that I facilitated on the psychiatric unit.

Our soldiers who suffer from maladies due to the horrors they experienced in combat are among “the least of these.” They return home to families who love them, yet have no idea of how to help them. They return to a society that recognizes their service, honors them, and salutes their bravery, yet are unaware of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual trauma they endure. Some of the veterans that were in that spirituality group in the late ‘90s suffered from opioid addiction, some were homeless, and many labored unsuccessfully to stay gainfully employed. Veterans Affairs research reveals that 10.2 percent of veterans screened during treatment for opioid addiction in 2014 were homeless, nearly 10 times the rate of homelessness reported among the general population of veterans accessing care at VA facilities—a startling correlation between veteran homelessness and opioid addiction. While veterans as a whole face a heightened risk of homelessness, racial and ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable, as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Minority Veterans Report reveals. The report indicates that minority veterans are increasingly accessing benefits from Veterans Affairs, including but not limited to VA home loans; however, without assistance some may fall through the cracks and find accessing their benefits difficult. 

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is one of the maladies soldiers acquire from combat. The Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics notes, “the prevalence of PTSD in veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan is about 11- 20%.” The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has implemented various programs and treatments to help veterans with PTSD. Research indicates that these therapies are successful for those who participate. However, more can be done. Veterans are part of the larger community as well as communities of faith.

I believe the best way to honor our military is to refrain from war. No one wins in a war. However, the reality is that we live in a world where that currently is not a practicality. There is still work that can be done, and there are opportunities for communities of faith to assist.

This work begins with supporting lobbyists in your state to advocate for more veterans’ homeless shelters and housing with access to treatment programs for those who need it. Veterans are in congregations across America. The Sunday prior to Veterans Day is an opportunity to not only salute our military, it is an opportunity to engage in conversation through litanies and sermons that speak to the challenges they face. Homeless veterans are among the least of these; they are sleeping on the streets, under bridges, in alleys and eating out of trash cans. It is a disgrace that veterans are homeless in a country that has left them out in the cold.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs has developed initiatives to end veteran homelessness. One of these initiatives includes collaborating with community organizations and faith-based communities with federal funding to assisting in ending homelessness for veterans. May we continue to find creative ways to help those who are in need, encourage them to take advantage of the resources available, and support the initiative to end homelessness. In this respect, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. Let us not forget the least of these after Veterans Day.

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.

Photo by Jessica Radanavong on Unsplash