Love thy neighbor: Helping veterans to heal

Nov 11, 2015 by

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Once again, Veterans Day has arrived. For many, it is another day celebrating everyday militarism. Mennonites have long had an aversion to war and violence, and we find ourselves in an unpopular position on days like today.

A brief history lesson: Nov. 11, first known as Armistice Day, became Veterans Day in the U.S. in 1954. Armistice Day originally commemorated those who died in World War I (and later other wars) because the Western Front ceasefire went into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Most countries observing Armistice Day remember the dead of past wars; the U.S. honors all veterans, both dead and alive, on Nov. 11.

Despite this celebration, it is well documented just how poorly U.S. veterans are often treated after they return from the battlefield. A quick Internet search will result in thousands of articles, studies and stories about veteran homelessness, suicide, depression, PTSD, domestic violence and more.

What is less discussed are those veterans who have crises of conscience.

Conscientious objection (CO) to war and violence is not new to Mennonites, but it no longer a priority thanks to the cessation of the draft. But this does not mean there are no more COs. Rather, CO cases in the military are on the rise. One organization, the Center on Conscience & War (CCW), which was started by Mennonites and others in 1940, today helps those in the military who want to be discharged as COs.

In 2011, CCW saw 17 new CO cases come through their office. In 2014, there were 56 new cases. In 2015, the number is currently at 42. These numbers do not reflect the fact many cases carry over from year to year, as the average CO discharge process takes a year to complete.

Personally, I witnessed one of these cases play out with someone I know. In 2014, I received a direct message on Twitter from someone who I soon realized was once my classmate at Bluffton University, saying he was working to be discharged from the Army as a CO. I remembered him being very pro-military in 2006, but he left after our first year at Bluffton and I forgot about him.

Time and experience definitely changed his beliefs and I could see this quite clearly, but his chain of command could not, denying his application at first. I’m happy to say Robert Weilbacher was finally discharged in September 2015.

Similar to CO cases, moral injury is a widespread psychological wound of war. Different from traditional PTSD, moral injury is the result of witnessing or participating in an act which violates one’s “core moral beliefs,” as defined by Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and Dr. Gabriella Lettini. More resources on moral injury can be found at Brite Divinity School, or seen in this 2012 interview of drone pilot Brandon Bryant, who said, “I never thought I would kill that many people. In fact, I thought I couldn’t kill anyone at all.”

Although 6,000 miles from the war in Afghanistan, Bryant could not escape what he had done, nor is he alone in his suffering.

Veterans Day is not to be celebrated by Mennonites, but it should remind us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:7-8 (NRSV): “[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Despite maintaining our distance from creating war, we must help those injured by it, including veterans.

Mennonite WWII COs were influential in improving the U.S. mental health system, and we can do so again to help veterans. We can support those veterans who are struggling to be discharged as COs. The Sunday School curriculum created by Mennonite Central Committee and the Peace and Justice Support Network can help congregations relate to veterans in their own communities. We can even call on Congress to create a law which recognizes COs, instead of leaving them to the mercy of ever-changing military regulations.

Let us, as James 1:22 (NRSV) says, “be doers of the word,” and go forth, remembering to work for veterans and all others who need our help, not just today, but every day.

Jake Short is the administrative assistant at Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church and on the board of the Center on Conscience & War.

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