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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Veterans - Suggestions for Pastors

These resources for pastors are provided as many voices are calling for the church to be a significant partner in the complex readjustment process of returning home for military veterans.

As many military veterans return from warfare with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many voices are calling for the church to be a significant partner in the complex readjustment process. These materials are provided to enable the church and families to be more alert to the needs of veterans and to understand how to help.

1. Let veterans know that when they are ready, the congregation would be interested in hearing how they have grown during their deployments. Some will have a different focus on what matters in life after facing death.

  • Say that the congregation will be holding in collective prayer all families in transition after war and ask permission to use their names.
  • Represent your church as a resource in the transition process.
  • Ask them what kind of welcome reception they would like. We recommend that every veterans event include: 
    • Appreciation for the sacrifices made by the soldier and their families
    • Memorial for those less fortunate in the war, especially those who died
    • Gratitude for the present moment and our ability to be together without fear
  • Tell them who on the church staff they can talk with regarding issues they might have.
  • Explain the prophetic stance of your church in regard to the war (if you have one), being clear that the church is always in a discernment process, seeking to understand the will of God – and that that is understood of all Christians. We respectfully hold each other in love as we differ, knowing that we all grow and change in understanding. We appreciate the sacrifices made by the soldiers and their families, and walk with them in the paradox if they were asked to do things that most Americans do not support.

(from Minneapolis Area Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

2. Consult an essay written for the Boston Globe by Anna Badkhen on April 22, 2008, “Clergy Learn Together How to Help Vets”.

3. In his book Combat Stress: A Call to Awareness and Action, Chaplain Michael T. McEwen (U.S. Army retired) has suggested some major signs and symptoms of PTSD and related disorders to watch for. He has pointed to:

  • A generally depressed demeanor, perhaps with occasional unexplained anxiety.
  • Nightmares that may or may not be related to actual past experiences.
  • Other sleep disturbances – any sleep abnormality that interferes with normal, restful sleep.
  • Decreased interest in pleasant activities, including loss of appetite but also a lack of interest in hobbies, family events, social life and the like.
  • Flashbacks – intense “reliving the event” experience which sometimes involve several or all of the senses.
  • Intrusive memories – while not as intense as flashbacks, these unwanted remembering episodes intrude on the normal state of mind.
  • Physiological reactions – increased heart rate or breathing, the shakes, sweating and so on that accompany an intrusive memory or occur unexpectedly.
  • Cue-related reactions – for example, a victim may drop to the ground when hearing a loud gunshot-type sound.
  • Sexual dysfunction – may be an unusual decrease, or more rarely, an increase in sexual desire or activity.
  • Amnesia – inability to remember traumatic events.
  • Hyperstartle – a “jump/jerk” reaction to unexpected stimulus.
  • Hypervigilance – a persistent “looking over the shoulder” phenomenon.
  • Atypical irritability or anger outburst – especially a pattern that is abnormal given the individual’s pre-trauma behavior pattern.
  • Excessive alcohol or other drug consumption – including overuse of antianxiety or antidepression prescriptions, or use of illegal drugs.

McEwen went on to say, “According to the diagnostic guidelines, there is potential PRSD if several of the symptoms occur one month or more after the individual is removed from the trauma-causing environment and if these symptoms significantly interfere with normal family, work or social functioning. It is typical for some of these symptoms to be present in people who are returning from combat theaters. The primary concern is whether or not the symptoms diminish significantly with a month or so after coming home and that the symptoms do not seriously affect normal everyday life.”

4. Suggested reading for further ministry and consultation

When Duty Calls: A Guide to Equip Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve Personnel and Their Loved Ones for Military Separations, by Carol Vandesteeg (Enumclaw, WA: WinePress Publishing, 2001). Here is a book packed with practical advice for nearly every situation a military family faces. The sections on “Reunion” and “Some Don’t Return” are particularly helpful for those who must deal with the fallout of the trauma of military service.

Courage After Fire: Coping Strategies for Troops Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and their Families, by Keith Armstrong, Suzanne Best, and Paula Domenici (Ulysses Press, 2005). Here is a book of keen perceptions that will aid in understanding the stress experienced and how to find help.

War Trauma: Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam to Iraq, by Raymond Monsour Scurfield (Algora Publishing, 2006). The author, a veteran and social work professor, devotes a chapter to “The Return Home and the Ricochet Effect on the Family.”

“Coming Home”: A Guide for Spouses of Service Members Returning from Mobilization/Deployment. (Available from the Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 2700 Army Pentagon, Washington DC 20310-2700).