Photo by The U.S. Army
After the Vietnam War, many service members returned back to their hometowns only to be spit on amidst a flurry of scathing remarks. That rarely happens today, as that greeting has generally been replaced with a warm, "Thank you for your service."
That’s nice, but it may not be enough. It is time for us to take a step back to reflect on what we are communicating with this message.
Why “Thank You” isn’t enough
In the statement, "Thank you for your service," we really have not communicated solidarity or support for these young persons. We are more like baristas passing out a "thank you" instead of a latte, sending our troubled and hurting service members out the door alone.
It's time for this to change. As a military chaplain, I hope to offer some practical ideas to address the gap in strong relational support networks for young people entering military service. They need help creating and supporting a sticky web of relationships for before, during, and after their service.
Sharing our pain, sharing our joy
There is one evening in my life that I will never forget. I was sitting in the house of an acquaintance from church. It was an old house, perfect for college students. News had just gotten out to the church that my high school sweetheart had been killed in a car accident. Her tires slipped on some black ice in a storm, and the Thanksgiving dinner we shared with family would be the last time I would share how thankful I was for this person I cherished so deeply.
My friend was sitting on a couch across the room from me. I was sitting in an armchair, a manifestation of my emotional state of feeling alone. I was broken. I needed help.
Much of the conversation is a blur to me now. My friend tried to empathize with me in my pain. He tried to connect with the lost boy in the body of a grown man across the room, but was struggling to find the right words. He was certainly not alone. The number of people who came to me with nice words in the weeks and months following the accident was staggering. Unfortunately, most of the sentiments offered felt more like awkward reminders of the pain that I didn’t need to be reminded about.
Then my friend said something different to me. His words felt like a cool, moist breeze on my dry and cracking heart.
“I know this isn’t much, but I want to be in this with you. I want your pain to be my pain, and I want my joy to be your joy.”
Those words would change my life. He meant everything he said.
My friend’s witness to the self-giving love of Christ and commitment to support me through thick and thin has taught me a great deal about what it means to follow Jesus. Most specifically in my own life, my friend’s words have fueled my calling to being an Army chaplain on many days that I doubt that call. I remember back to that evening he committed to stand beside me through the challenges that lay ahead, and I am reminded of those young service members in uniform that similarly need the love and support of Christ in the flesh.
Help for teenagers entering the military
The truth is that the transition from being a teenager into the military is rough. It is rough for many reasons (leaving home and enduring boot camp are two of the big ones), but the challenge becomes even more pronounced for service members when they deploy and are engaged in combat.
Younger service members who deploy are more likely to incur a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to be susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, and to attempt suicide than their older counterparts. Support is needed for these young persons.
This is where the Sticky Faith community kicks in. In a report from the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, it was determined that young service members and veterans need support, but that many are not seeking out the appropriate resources. Thus, the study suggests a need for lay-providers (friends, family, and clergy) to also be trained to support young men and women experiencing the costly effects of military service. In other words, there is a need for our Sticky Faith webs to be just as developed and present in the lives of our youth entering the military as those going into the workforce and college.
Building a 5:1 community
One of the most practical ways that we can offer our support to young people entering and returning from military service is to integrate a model of 5:1 community. Based on FYI’s Sticky Faith research and the work of Chap Clark, 5:1 refers to the strategy of inviting five adults from your community to support every one young person. It is a concept that emphasizes the importance of mentorship and discipleship in the lives of youth, fivefold.
As young adults wrestle with the challenges of military service, a web of supporters from home that is committed to supporting young service members is invaluable. However, I often find that adults don’t really know what to do to live out that support. They lack ideas for how to respond to those young people along the way.
Consider using the following idiom (typically used in emergency scenarios) as a way to think about how to effectively support those service members to whom you have committed your support:
Look, listen, and feel.
- Look. There are two ways to “look” into the lives of those young service members we support. The first is through time spent in face-to-face interactions. These times are precious and can be rare. If the young person is home on leave or holiday, take advantage of every minute you can get to communicate that you are still “in this” with the person. Communicate to them through words and actions that you are truly committed to supporting their spiritual life of discipleship. When you can’t see them literally face-to-face, make use of video calling applications to bring a visual connection to your long-distance conversations.
The second way is to connect to the young person via the social media portals that they utilize and, quite literally, look into their life. In today’s world, a person’s social media interactions can say a lot about how they are doing. If you are committed to supporting this young person, commit to keeping up with their life to communicate with them in relevant ways and show that you are paying attention to what’s happening to them in this new season.
- Listen. I was recently at an event speaking with families of deployed soldiers, and the one piece of advice that I gave to everyone in the room upon their soldier’s arrival home was this: listen. It is incredible just how much a person can heal from internal wounds and difficult experiences if we encourage that person to share his or her story. Unfortunately, often times service members are unable to talk about their stories for one reason or another; but if the people who are committed to supporting these young persons are committed to listening to their stories on an ongoing basis, they are more likely to feel our support when it is needed. Here are a few tips while you listen:
- Remember that you never will completely know what someone else is going through. Don’t try to communicate to a hurting service member that you “know” what she or he is going through, but instead let them know that you are in it with them.
- If you’re a parent, try to listen openly to your daughter or son without letting your own emotional reactions to their experiences hinder the healing and restoration process. Sometimes parents’ emotional response can actually shut down important sharing.
- If you’re a ministry leader, it is okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes the most theologically sound answer to a difficult question in regard to violence or war is, “I don’t know…”
- Feel. If you don’t feel the effects of the experiences the young person to whom you are committed is going through, repeat steps #1 and #2. When we do feel the effects of the young service member’s experiences, and commit to sharing the joys and pains of life with this person, then our emotions and gut reactions can fuel a life of deep and committed prayer. In the words of Oswald Chambers, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”
Healthy reintegration into the community and into family life mentally, emotionally, and spiritually necessitates a robust web of support for young people in the military. I often receive mailers from the Wounded Warriors Project, and on the back of the envelopes read the words, "The greatest casualty is being forgotten." As families and churches connected to military service members, we have a responsibility to our young brothers and sisters in Christ not to forget them. In fact, not only do we have a responsibility not to forget these young people, we have a responsibility to intentionally remember them.
- Think about the young people you know who are heading into military service. How can you and your church community provide a consistent web of support around them as they go?
- Similarly, what young people do you know who have returned from serving, in particular those who deployed overseas? Who could be part of a support network for these vulnerable young people?
- If you are a parent whose son or daughter is heading into the military, talk with them about their support network of adults, and offer to help them build this network prior to service. You may want to reach out to these adults directly, and share this article as a resource.
 Gallup Poll: Deployment Taking Greatest Toll on Young Service Members, 2010.
 “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery” edited by Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, 2008, p 109.
 Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, October 17 devotional entry.