Good news humanity love The chaplain’s calling remains even after our service members return to civilian life, where community can be challenging for veterans to find.

The Black Hawk skimmed the desert, the dark of the Iraqi sky made the horizon invisible. The doors were open, and we felt the power of the engines, the steady beat of the rotor. Suddenly the aircraft shifted, we were under fire, and the calm of the night was shattered. Our door gunners were returning fire with fire. From my seat, I saw a flare heading for the ground. Moments later, it was as if nothing happened and we were once again, just as we were before.

I’ve flown in more Black Hawks than I can possibly recall, but I remember that trip vividly. It was 2008 and I was on my way back to Baghdad after spending Shabbat with Jewish personnel in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit — dinner, prayers, and singing, in the midst of war. One of the highest callings of any military chaplain is to help soldiers find that moment of grace, that connection to community, in even the most difficult circumstances. Together, we created that moment of holiness.

The chaplain’s calling remains our commitment to our service members, even — and especially — after they return home. Regardless of faith tradition or branch of service, it is the responsibility of each chaplain working with veterans to provide spiritual care, support veterans’ connection and reconnection to their communities, and to guide them to experience self-love and self-respect as they reintegrate to civilian life.  

Good news humanity love How to build a veteran’s community

The question of community can be a thorny one for returning military personnel. They’ve built something new with the men and women with whom they’ve served, a community unlike any they may have left behind, with different rules and expectations and a particular kind of intimacy and commitment with which most civilians have very little experience. The veteran is glad to be home, wants to be home and to feel at home, but the transition can be challenging.

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In fact, a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center found that about half of post-9/11 veterans say it was somewhat (32%) or very (16%) difficult for them to return to civilian life after their service. And 45% say the military either did not prepare them well or did not prepare them at all for the transition.

Five years after making my own transition, I have the privilege of partnering with hundreds of health care professionals, social workers and specialists as the Veterans Administration’s chief of chaplains in the Atlanta region to try to rectify that disconnect. Whether it’s reintegration into family life, the acquisition of new professional skills, or a struggle with homelessness, many of our veterans face daunting challenges, which are heartbreakingly reflected in PTSD and suicide rates

Military and VA chaplains are dedicated to meeting veterans where they are, helping them to find the counseling, career guidance, or the housing support they may need, while also creating moments of grace and community.

Walking through the hallways of a medical center, I’m often stopped by veterans in our outpatient groups, wanting to share with me a hope or dream that is giving them strength. Sometimes, I am racing to the intensive care unit. I’ll join a family standing outside the room of a veteran who served in Vietnam. Maybe his spouse, a quiet and strong woman, will ask me to lead them in prayer. I’ll invite them to gather together with me.

In moments like these, the words of Psalm 121 come easily, flowing around us and sheltering us: “I turn my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” Specialists will stabilize the patient, the family will step toward his bedside, and the doctors, nurses and I will step away, ready to answer our next call. 

Veterans may not choose to turn to the VA, however, or may be unaware of our available services. They may turn instead to their rabbi, pastor, parish priest or community imam, seeking the guidance and comfort of spiritual leaders with whom they have a history. It then becomes part of the chaplain’s mission to ensure that local faith communities are aware of what the VA can offer, so that those spiritual leaders can draw on our resources, as well. This is especially important in rural areas, where any form of social service can be hard to find, and the nearest VA office is many miles away.

Good news humanity love A warrior’s special status

As a rabbi, I partner with my certifying body, JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. JWB, a JCC Association of North America initiative, has positioned Jewish Community Centers nationwide as leaders in building a connection between men and women still serving, veterans, and their Jewish community. Similar efforts are found across the country, associated with the faith traditions represented in the military.

My tradition addresses the place of the warrior in society in a variety of ways; the Torah acknowledges that those who go to war experience something fundamentally other, and that their reintegration is a process. Regardless of faith community, there is ample room in our nation for the recognition that going to war changes people, but that they must, and can, have the opportunity to reintegrate to civilian life.

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As I rode in that Black Hawk — in any of those Black Hawks, any of those Humvees, any of those armored personnel carriers — across scenes of battle, from forward operating base to outpost, from scenes of terror to hospitals where victims were treated, I always knew that as much as it might seem that my soldiers and I could be once again just as we were before, we never would. Even before the light of those flares died down, we had been changed.

Peace is what we want, soldier and civilian alike, and peace is what we pray for, but military and Veterans Administration chaplains recognize that peace has often been rare and hard to achieve. Our mission is to help those who have gone to war find their way home — on Veterans Day, and every day of the year.

Rabbi David Goldstrom is chief of chaplains at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Health Care System in Decatur, Georgia. He was an active service member in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army Reserve Transportation Corps. for 16 years, before serving as a U.S. Army Chaplain for 14 years.

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