Helping veterans when they return home from war

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, November 6, 2011

When veterans return from Afghanistan, Iraq or other theaters of war, they are often welcomed home with parades and parties. After the celebrations die down, it is time for them to start moving on from what in many cases was a scarring experience mentally, psychologically, spiritually and sometimes physically.

With the remembrance of Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Catholics can pray for our returning veterans and consider ways to reach out to the servicemen and women who work to ensure our freedom. Those already working with veterans can share their experiences.

Chaplain services at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines held a daylong seminar on Oct. 7 offering ministers some insights on how to serve the returning veterans spiritually.

The chaplains there found that veterans who are struggling are more likely to reach out to ministers than to health-care providers. But the ministers may not understand the things veterans are dealing with, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, which may initially go undetected. TBIs could be a result of being near a bomb or IED when it went off.

Father Jim Burnett, chief of Chaplain Service at Hines VA Hospital, explained that for six months after the attacks of Sept. 11, the entire country experienced PTSD. Returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan can experience PTSD 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When they return, many veterans feel they don’t fit in and can find it hard to cope with civilian life. And they have changed. In some cases their spouse has also changed. Not only is the veteran dealing with what happened on the battlefield, they could be dealing with struggles at home or with family and friends.

“It’s just trauma after trauma after trauma,” Burnett said.

Many of the people in today’s war zones are reservists, Burnett said.

“They come back to their jobs and all of a sudden they are realizing they can’t communicate with their spouse, can’t communicate with their kids,” said Burnett.

There are also spiritual struggles. If they survived while a friend died there can be guilt or shame. They can experience a sense of being unforgiveable for things they did while at war, especially if they killed someone.

They can even wonder if they will go to heaven or hell because they’ve killed someone, according to John Oliver, chief of Chaplain Service at the VA Medical Center in Durham, N.C., who presented at Hines’ daylong seminar.

Sharing stories

It helps if the veteran can talk things out, especially with other veterans, said August Sisco, a volunteer with Mayslake Ministries in Lombard and a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines.

For the past three years, Sisco has used his experiences to help other veterans find healing on Mayslake’s retreats.

The retreats are free and for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sisco said “posttraumatic stress is not a disorder. It is a normal reaction to horrible events.” He suffered it after Vietnam but said he didn’t recognize it until much later. There is no cure for PTSD, but talking things through and getting help can make it less severe, he said.

Mayslake’s retreats work on the vet’s spiritual side. Mayslake also offers support groups for spouses and significant others of those serving in war zones. It is important to help them work things out spiritually, Sisco said.

“Some hate God. Some don’t want to think about God. That was my problem,” he said.

During the retreats, the group goes through exercises centered around one goal. “The key thing is to get their sacred stories out,” Sisco said.

Being with other veterans helps.

“When they are ready, people share their story with other vets. And they open up to other vets. Things they wouldn’t tell their spouse, their kids or anybody else,” Sisco said.

The retreats are Christian-based but not specifically Catholic.

“It’s trying to bring a higher power into the thing of trying to deal with the post-traumatic stress. It’s pretty awesome, to be honest with you,” he said.

The retreats are free and kept to about 15 people. The next one is Nov. 11-13 at Cardinal Stritch Retreat Center in Mundelein.

Finding jobs

Sisco said there is one thing veterans from today’s wars face that he didn’t face returning from Vietnam.

“They are in the same boat I was only worse. They have trouble getting a job,” he said.

Bertel Smith, a job developer for Catholic Charities Veterans Employment Program, agreed.

“If a young veteran came to our parish I would first congratulate them and welcome them home,” said Smith. After the welcome, Smith said he would ask the veteran if he or she had been in touch with the Veterans Administration to find out what benefits are available.

“From that I would try to extend a hand to him if there is a job opportunity he is looking for,” said Smith, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army.

The Catholic Charities Veterans Employment Program assesses the veterans skills and helps them find jobs.

Smith said the parish community plays an important role in helping a returning veteran find work because there might be an employer in the parish who is hiring. But it is more than that.

“In those pews there are a lot of vets from the Vietnam era or post- Vietnam who would probably want to be a part of this young veteran’s life and talk military language,” said Smith, who is a member of St. John de la Salle Parish, 10205 S. Martin Luther King Dr.

He hopes returning veterans reach out to their parish and the parish reaches out to veterans. Perhaps a group of parishes could get together to offer an outreach to returning veterans, he said.

“There are many things that we can do,” said Smith.