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A U.S. Army soldier is assisted past his burning armored vehicle after it struck an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.
Staff and news service reportsCatholic parishes "are a natural place where Catholic veterans and their families can go and get support, because that's what parishes already do," a Jesuit priest told participants last month in a webinar sponsored by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
Jesuit Father Rick Curry, founder of the Academy for Veterans at Georgetown University in Washington, and Dr. Jim Boehnlein, a psychiatrist who is associate director for education at the VA Northwest Network Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in Portland, were featured speakers at the webinar, designed to offer tips for parish support of veterans and their families.
The suggestions ranged from something as simple as an offer to baby-sit or a mention in the parish bulletin of those deployed overseas to more complex assistance such as helping veterans find meaningful employment or addressing housing needs.
Sometimes the most helpful thing can be a listening ear, said Dr. Boehnlein, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Portland who has worked with veterans for the past 30 years. He explained that many returning vets are suffering from sleep deprivation, panic attacks, startle reactions and irritability. That can add up to family strife, unemployment and isolation.
"The veteran might not even realize he or she has a problem," Dr. Boehnlein said. Many vets have what he calls a "moral injury," inflicted by killing or hurting the enemy. It comes from the inner conflict between military duty and moral prohibition of killing.
Veterans of Vietnam and wars in the Middle East may have special challenges, he said, because of the prevalence of child soldiers.
Many of the 3.2 million service men and women deployed overseas return home with a complicated set of emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical symptoms.
Suicide rates among veterans exceed combat deaths, with members of the National Guard at particular risk, perhaps because of their limited contact with members of their units after their return from deployment.
About 300,000 to 400,000 veterans have experienced some sort of brain injury, with a quarter of them estimated to be Catholic.
If a parish is approached by a veteran or a concerned family member, Boehnlein said, it is important to "provide a safe place to talk and listen nonjudgmentally."
Those in parishes should also be prepared to refer the person to outside resources, such as local Veterans Affairs hospitals and Catholic Charities offices.
Father Curry said parishes should "reach out and 'fold in' veterans and their families," making them aware of what the parish has to offer even if they are not Catholic or have fallen away from the practice of their faith.
He suggested that parishes hold a special open house that highlights the service opportunities available to veterans and religious education programs for their children, as well as the welcome and friendship offered by parishioners.
But he said what veterans need most is to become more independent and do what they need to do to get back to work.
Father Curry, who spent 47 years as a Jesuit brother, said he found when he began working with veterans that many desperately wanted the sacrament of reconciliation in order to "rid themselves of residual guilt" related to military service.
That realization led him to reconsider his vocation and to complete the required coursework to become a priest. He was ordained in 2009.