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Preaching to (and Caring for) Vets: Memorial Day and Beyond

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Memorial Day Weekend
(Creative Commons Image by Bill Dickinson on Flickr)


On Monday, May 25, 2015, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day, an annual observance in which we remember those who have died while serving in the military. This commemoration began three years after the Civil War ended. Known then as Decoration Day, it was “a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.”1 Following the atrocities of World War I, Decoration Day, as was expanded to honor the memories of those who died in all Americans wars and in 1971 Memorial Day was declared a national holiday to be observed annually on the last Monday of May.

In 2000, to further the effort to remember and honor those who have died during military service, the U.S. Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”2 Memorial Day is an important moment in our civic life when we reflect on the real human costs of war.

Many churches find ways to mark Memorial Day in some way. While observances range widely, it is not uncommon for preachers to mention it, either in a prayer, a litany, or in their sermon. Some will, regretfully, ignore it altogether. This latter option may be particularly tempting this year, since the Memorial Day weekend coincides with the Day of Pentecost (May 24, 2015). This year, while we mark the birth of the church by the living giving power of the Spirit, we also remember the significant costs of war, the human lives that war claims. I will return to this below. But along with those killed on the battlefields we’ve sent them to, there are at least two other facets of Memorial Day that we should face.

First, we should remember those whose war experience led them to take their own lives after returning home. According to the latest U.S. government data, about 22 veterans commit suicide each day. That’s almost one per hour. Rita Brock, director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, wrote that “[t]o ignore veteran suicides as casualties of war is to abnegate our own moral responsibility for having sent them to fight. It's also a failure to heed the lessons about the costs of war to our whole society.”3 While recent legislation is aimed at improving the Veteran Administration’s suicide prevention program,4 ministers should remember that the friends and family members left behind by these suicides may be sitting in our pews.

Second, we should also remember those who may struggle with memories of fallen friends, wondering why they survived while others didn’t. In March, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the struggles many veterans face when returning home from combat. One of the most striking interviews was that of Devin Jones, who remembered the death of his friend Dennis Burrow, who was killed by a landmine. When asked by Scott Pelley, “Did you sometimes think you'd like to trade places?” Jones replied, “Every day. Every single day. How do I deserve to be here?”

The anguish that leads some to commit suicide, and the survivor’s guilt experience by veterans like Devon Jones, are symptoms of moral injury, which has been describe as “the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation.”5 Though it shares some symptoms with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), moral injury is caused by what the individual senses as a “violation of what’s right” rather than by a sudden traumatic event.6

The sorrow, grief, shame, alienation felt by many veterans may indeed fill our pews from week to week, with anger and depression filling the gaps between Sundays.

While we memorialize the lives that war has claimed, we must also acknowledge the losses that war takes once veterans return home. At the practical level, we might make this Memorial Day meaningful by taking a little extra time to prepare our congregations and ourselves.

Some ideas include:

  • In your newsletter, blog, or email, encourage all in the community to reflect on their relationship to war, moral injury, and military service as a way to prepare for worship on Memorial Day weekend.
  • Enlist the help of a church member who is a veteran, or someone from the nearest VA Hospital, to think about how to create space in worship for those with symptoms of PTSD.
  • Think creatively about how, during the service, your church can honor those who died while also acknowledging those who continue to struggle, such as a prayer, litany, or special candle-lighting liturgy. Check out the Resources page at the Soul Repair Center’s website.
  • In the sermon, reflect on what it means to survive war, but to struggle with moral injury and PTSD. Read some veteran memoirs or essays to hear their voice about what it is like to live through war and quote them in the sermon.
  • If you can, think about showing a video of a veteran talking about her/his experience in war and coming home. 60 Minutes recently aired a segment that contains some clips suited for this content.
  • Finally, since this is Pentecost Sunday, Ezekiel 37:1-14 provides an image that many veterans might identify with. Pairing the image of the dry bones with the stories of PTSD and moral injury alongside the breath of the spirit bringing new life and stories of veterans who are learning to incorporate their war experience into a new (and renewed) identity might make a powerful Memorial Day/Pentecost sermon.

Let us give thanks for those who serve our country, especially for those who have given their lives in the line of duty. But let us also acknowledge those who returned home, alive and well, but feeling empty, numb, even dead, on the inside. And let us call attention to these invisible wounds that affect so many, raising awareness of the need for our congregations to take action to help their recovery.


Notes:

1 Memorial Day History, Department of Veterans Affairs, paragraph 1.

2 Ibid. paragraph 14.

3 Rita Nakashima Brock, “Memorial Day, War, and the Dead We Ignore,” Huffington Post, May 28, 2012, paragraph 4.

4 Richard A. Oppel Jr. “Preventing Suicides Among Veterans Is at Center of Bill Passed by Senate,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 2015.

5 David Wood, “Moral Injury: The Grunts - Damned If They Kill, Damned If They Don’t,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2014, Paragraph 10. See Figure 2 in this article, “War Trauma Symptoms,” which depicts overlapping symptoms of PTSD and moral injury.

6 Jonathan Shay uses this phrase to describe moral injury, though he did not use the term, in his Achilles in Vietnam.

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