Faith, community help heal battle scars

Pew study shows transition to civilian life easier for vets who regularly attend religious services

By Jessica Marsala


Infographic by Kelly C. Chase

During a combat mission in Iraq, Hickory Smith and his buddies once joked that they had “God riding with us in
our Humvee.”

Smith, a 30-year-old Army veteran from Minnesota, can recall many instances during his military service when having faith in a higher being helped him and his buddies survive war.

Smith served in Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission from 2003 to 2004 and again in combat in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, both times with the Minnesota Army National Guard. Since coming home from war, however, his faith has remained just as valuable to him as it was on the battlefield.

“Once I did return, it was really good to have the faith community around me,” Smith says. “It’s kind of similar to the military in one sense.” In a way, he adds, it’s a lot like a
civilian “brotherhood.”

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report on social and demographic trends, “a recent veteran who attends religious services at least once a week has a 67 percent chance of having an easy re-entry experience.” Veterans who don’t attend services have only a 43 percent chance of having an easy experience transitioning to civilian life.

“When you believe in something higher than yourself and something bigger, it kind of draws you through it and you have a rock,” says Smith, now a chaplain assistant for the National Guard in Minnesota. “You have an anchor that … you can always focus on.”

Families and ‘brotherhoods’

John Morris, currently a chaplain for the Army National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., says religion “heightens the positive effect in reintegration.” Other types of communities, he says, can also help veterans recover and reintegrate.

“The reason veterans struggle in transition is they’re leaving a community and they’re trying to re-enter a community,” says Morris, who served off and on in Iraq as a chaplain during the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. “When they’re isolated nothing good happens.”

Morris helped establish the Minnesota-based Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program. The program provides veterans with spiritual guidance, as well as employment, education and medical resources.

Even those in non-combat positions attest that faith is important.

Zac Cronauer, 24, of Pennsylvania, who currently has 11 months left in his military contract, deployed to Iraq with the Army Reserve from 2009 to 2010.  When he returned home, he found his faith stronger than ever and decided to volunteer as a greeter at his local church.

Hickory Smith, 30, says that his church became like his military 'brotherhood.' Smith clarified in an email that he attends "most if not all Sundays and maybe some other events as well." Photo courtesy of Hickory Smith.

Photo courtesy of Hickory Smith.
Hickory Smith, 30, says that his church became like his military ‘brotherhood.’ Smith clarified in an email that he attends “most if not all Sundays and maybe some other events as well.”

Cronauer says faith “absolutely” helped him, both in deployment and reintegration.

“When you’re out there, you know, you’re by yourself pretty much — you have your family back at home — so you rely a lot on your faith,” he says.

Healing ‘moral injuries’

Some say spirituality can also help veterans cope with so-called “moral injuries” — inner conflicts veterans confront when they feel as though they violated their own ethical code during war.

Rita Brock, the stepdaughter of a Vietnam and WWII veteran, is co-author of the book “Soul Repair: Recovery from Moral Injury After War.” She is also a co-founder of the Soul Repair Center at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Center, established in 2012, educates schools, religious organizations and congregations about the moral injuries veterans may suffer after war.

Generally speaking, Brock says the public doesn’t adequately help veterans “return all the way home” because many people don’t understand how some veterans are morally conflicted by what they did or did not do while serving overseas. This is the basic premise of a moral injury, which Brock says does not require a particular religious affiliation.

Moral injuries are often confused with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which actually affects the brain, makes veterans experience fear, relive their wartime experiences and lose touch with reality, Brock says.

Moral injuries, on the other hand, revolve around feelings of guilt, failure, grief, anger, and/or shame. Brock says some people who suffer moral injuries may “shut down all feeling” entirely and “become numbed and depressed.” Some may even commit suicide.

Brock says it’s important for friends and families to help veterans overcome their moral injuries.

“We just tell [veterans] to put the war behind them, get a job and get on with their lives,” Brock says. “And we don’t understand how hard that is.”

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This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

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