Spiritual care for wounded warriors

Julia Spitz

As President Obama honored those who died in last week's shootings at Fort Hood, and weighed sending more troops to Afghanistan, 17 people gathered at Edwards Church to learn about ministering to veterans and military families.

"All they need is one person," Victor Nunez Ortiz, a former Framingham resident who served as a combat engineer in the Marine Corps Reserve and now works with SAVE, the Statewide Advocacy for Veterans Empowerment, told the group. "I might be that one person. It might be someone else. We want to empower them to find the right care."

"When you're in a war, it never leaves you. It's with you every day," said Owen McNamara, who served as deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Veterans Services. "In 1998, I had a breakdown. It was a very humbling experience."

"We're very guarded," said Leominster resident Ron Brown, a Vietnam vet who told the audience of area hospital chaplains, pastors and church members about his struggles with post-traumatic stress. "Possibly, in the beginning, in order to help, it may be with the family members."

"What could I do? What could my church do? What could my faith community do to reach out to veterans and their families?" Those were the questions posed by Beverly Prestwood-Taylor, executive director of the Brookfield Institute, which sponsored the all-day "Spiritual Journey Home" workshop at the Saxonville United Church of Christ congregation.

In efforts to answer the questions, in both broad and concrete terms, the group heard from Gold Star mother Alma Hart of Bedford, whose son, John, was killed in Iraq in 2003, and Kevin Lucey, whose son, Jeff, committed suicide after returning home to Belchertown from Iraq.

Brown was joined by fellow Vietnam veteran McNamara, a Fitchburg resident with two sons on active duty, and retired Veterans Administration psychologist Dick Pearlstein of Amherst, in a discussion of post-traumatic stress. Nunez Ortiz told participants about his tour as a combat engineer in Iraq, as well as his peer-to-peer work with returning veterans in an effort to prevent suicides.

Susan Leary and Rob Wilson, members of the Amherst-based Veteran's Education Project, talked about their group's support for military families.

Former Southborough resident Cynthia Crosson, pastor of a church in Whately, spoke of her work with a pilot program that matches service dogs with veterans.

"We have placed five so far," Crosson said of the National Education for Assistance Dog Service animals trained to be "a focal point" veterans can use to calm anxieties as they return to civilian life. "The difference we have seen is incredible," she said of Trauma Alert Dog, an offshoot of Princeton-based NEADS' Canines for Combat Veterans.

The dogs offer a concrete way members of a faith community can get involved, by helping to pay for the training that can cost up to $20,000 per animal.

The dogs also offer comfort in ways speaker after speaker urged participants to utilize in their ministries to veterans and military families.

"Be open to being led," said Leary, who works with the Amherst veterans group. "Never believe you can't help. One person can be a bridge."

"The most important thing you can do is listen. Really, really listen," but not ask intrusive questions, said Wilson, Leary's colleague.

"I really pray ... you learn to walk with our veterans. You don't have to say a word," said Lucey.

Lucey, who found his son had hanged himself at the family's home in 2004, also talked about the challenges families like his face.

"Most of the families of military suicides, you won't ever hear from them," said Lucey, but they're "in your congregation, in your community," and they often "feel shunned.

"We are the unaccounted. We are the unacknowledged. We are the orphans of war. We are not Gold Stars. It hurts. It hurts tremendously."

Gold Star families have their own challenges, including seeing friendships slip away and jobs lost, said Hart, who, with her husband, Brian, was instrumental in the fight to get armor for military vehicles after their son was killed in a convoy of ill-equipped Humvees with one-third the ammunition they were supposed to have.

"Every time I walk in the room, I'm 'the dead soldier's mother,' " she said, but her focus is on veterans and those still serving.

"We've got people coming home with missing arms and legs, but no one wants to see them," or give them jobs.

"We've got to get rid of the stigma of PTSD," she said. "We have these young men who really need a hand."

The hyper vigilance and survival techniques that help someone in combat do not immediately disappear when a soldier returns home, said Pearlstein, and multiple deployments increase the problems of adapting to the separate environments.

Women veterans with post-traumatic stress face extra hurdles because they fear asking for help could lead to their children being taken away and placed in foster care, said Leary.

"My affliction is not my own," McNamara said of his PTSD. "I share it with many people. I think of those who came before me and I think of those who will come after me.

"If you're truly a pastor, they need your help," he said. "They may pretend they don't. They do. They need you.

"Don't give up on them. Please. Don't give up on them."

Julia Spitz can be reached at 508-626-3968 or jspitz@cnc.com.