On Veterans

Meeting the Needs of Veterans

In August, The Salvation Army hosted its annual Veterans Appreciation and Open House celebration at the Ladore Lodge and Conference Center in Waymart, Pa. The event included a prayer service dedicated to local veterans, a free BBQ, and a classic auto show. That day, Reverend Dale Pepper, a retired colonel and chaplain for the Army National Guard, and Fred B. Baker, commander of American Legion Post 154 in Montrose, Pa., shared their thoughts on the cost of combat, the virtues of faith, and the Salvation Army’s ministry to veterans.

How is a veteran’s faith affected by combat?

In World War II, the average soldier in the Pacific saw about 40 days of combat. During Vietnam, thanks to the mobility of helicopters and new technology, the average soldier saw 240 days of combat. That is why PTSD became so prevalent after Vietnam.—Fred Baker”
Dale Pepper: Folks in war have certainly witnessed things that can challenge their beliefs. Some even begin to doubt that God is with them. But for the most part, I’ve noticed that veterans, especially those who have been on the frontlines of combat, return with their faith strengthened. Those who didn’t have faith before, begin a search for God. Time and time again, I’ve found the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes” proven true in my ministry. I have always been grateful to the Lord for giving me the opportunity to serve, first in the Army National Guard, and then as a chaplain. It has been my duty, but also a wonderful privilege and gift from Him.

How receptive have veterans been to your ministry?
Pepper: Veterans who would not openly speak about their faith were thankful for a chaplain. I’d say 95 percent of everyone I ministered to, perhaps more, appreciated me being there for them. I considered what I did a ministry of presence. The veterans I helped knew that I was there for them spiritually and as a fellow vet. I knew the pain their bodies were feeling. I knew those hardships they were experiencing, because I had faced them too. I knew how their minds were processing the world, because I had processed it the same way.

How important are church organizations to veterans?
Pepper: We have always appreciated the support we get from religious organizations such as The Salvation Army. When corps officers tell veterans they are praying for them, it means a lot.

Fred Baker: Churches, by nature, are helpful to veterans. There is nothing that means more to vets than to be shown appreciation for what they have done. More people show this appreciation now. It’s much different from when I came back from Vietnam. But even in those divisive times, the Church was always welcoming. When I came back from the war, I received help from a counselor at a Catholic church in Pennsylvania. I am not a Catholic, but the counseling was offered to me and I took it, and I was grateful for it.

One of the more common struggles soldiers face when they return from war is Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What do you think would surprise most people about this illness?
Baker: That 30 percent of the population is predisposed to it. That means PTSD will be triggered in one of three people who suffer a traumatic experience, whether they serve or not.

In World War II, the average soldier in the Pacific saw about 40 days of combat. During Vietnam, thanks to the mobility of helicopters and new technology, the average soldier saw 240 days of combat. That is why PTSD became so prevalent after Vietnam.

After recruits do their first tour, a third of them show some form of PTSD. When you send these recruits on their 5th or 6th tour of Iraq or Afghanistan, it increases. Every veteran will tell you, it affects us and the relationships we form in ways that you can’t imagine. It takes a long time to help someone with PTSD cope. It’s a large reason why we lose 20 veterans to suicide every day. Sometimes when someone with PTSD can’t cope, they see ending their life as a release.

What can The Salvation Army do to help meet the needs of veterans today?
Baker: I have seen the wonderful work that The Salvation Army does with homeless people and with victims of addiction. This type of focus and dedication could help veterans receive counseling and get acclimated into society, especially the young veterans. These are kids who go into the service right after high school, with no time to get a proper adult life experience. Then they return to civilian life with nothing, no safety net, and little or no people skills. Serving in the military requires training, but returning to civilian life requires special training too. One–on–one counseling or group therapy, done in the name of the Church, would be incredibly helpful to these vets.

Interview by Hugo Bravo

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