How do we reach out to our returning soldiers? It may not be immediately apparent how many veterans live, work, raise families, study, worship or play in a given community. A first step toward discovery: Gather them together.
Several years ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts began to reach out to veterans through its Building Bridges Veterans Initiative. At the outset, they recognized three realities:
- Moral Injury: Too often, soldiers return not only with physical, but spiritual wounds that cannot be seen on the surface.
- Polarizing Politics of War: Care for veterans can be problematic given the polarized political landscape in discussions of war and peace.
- Homelessness: Despite governmental efforts to alleviate it, approximately 12% of veterans are homeless.
Where to begin? Two years ago, the Diocese launched a free community lunch for veterans, family and friends. When I visited recently, the Rev. Ali Brauner, Veteran’s Initiative Associate Director, described the lunch’s purpose: to create a space for veterans, their families, and friends, to gather and tell stories about their experience. Every Wednesday, about 45-50 veterans gather at the World War II Center in Northampton, Massachusetts, the home of Smith College, to check in, share stories, and occasionally hear from a speaker about veteran’s issues.
According the Chaplain David E. Smith, Coordinator of the Soul Care Initiative of JustPeace, “Telling personal stories about the experiences one has had during service or deployment is an important part of the wellness journey. Through exploration of these questions, you can navigate ways in which a safe space can be created for story sharing.”
He quotes psychiatrist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Ideas for Creating Space For Veterans (from Soul Care Initiative)
- Invite through face-to-face interaction
- Create mutually agreed upon guidelines for engagement
- Participate in online interaction
- Provide a safe physical space
- Invite supportive persons to participate
- Design a mentorship program (veteran to veteran)
- Provide opportunity for peer support from other veterans
- Create networks: with other veterans, with congregations, with the pastor, with families, with the community
- Provide means for story sharing: in person, in writing, in artwork, through playback theatre, through social media site.
On the Wednesday I attended lunch, the Building Bridges Initiative offered a simple but hearty menu: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, salad, and pie. By providing a free meal, a space to gather and a hearty welcome, the Diocese hopes to achieve what Frankl calls “a place for growth and freedom” for returning soldiers.
Photo: Adam Baker, Soldiers. 4.7.2012. Flickr Creative Commons.