Ground Operation

IT’S A MAY evening on the farm. My husband’s planting tomatoes and our son needs a bedtime story, but I’m completely occupied with pictures of war. I’ve cleared the piles of laundry from the kitchen table so our friend Adam can spread out his albums. There are photos of Adam in his tidy platform tent, of brown mountains in the distance, and dozens of pictures of children grinning on the other side of razor wire.

“This is an Aardvark,” he says, pointing to a gargantuan armored vehicle as he describes the flails that detonate buried mines. “What does that do to the soil?” I ask, because this is what you wonder when you and your family have been Mennonite farmers since the Reformation. There are a few more photos before I finally get it. Adam is showing me Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military hub in Afghanistan, surrounded by minefields and littered with burned-out tanks and planes, the wreckage of war from the Soviets. No one farms here, or has, or will for a long, long time.

FOR THE PAST three seasons, Adam McDermott has come to our farm in Central Pennsylvania’s Stone Valley every Friday morning to harvest vegetables for the food bank. We always chat while we bunch beets or pick green beans, and now I wonder why we’ve never talked about his years in the Army.

“This farm has definitely been part of my therapy,” he tells me, while offering a brief sketch of his months in Iraq: taking heavy equipment down unfamiliar roads to set off hidden explosives, being promoted to sergeant, and then losing three friends when a bomb shattered their Humvee. Adam came home in 2008 with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an alcohol addiction. “A lot of guys struggle with alcohol,” Adam says. “In the military you have camaraderie and a sense of purpose. But when you get back, there’s just this big void.”

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Wounded Souls

WHEN CHIEF MASTER Sergeant Harry Marsters returned in 2008 from his time in Iraq, he knew something wasn’t right. At 54, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force—with 27 years full time in the military and the remainder as a reservist with the Air National Guard—felt that as one of the “older folks” he knew what to expect upon return from his assignment with the communications squad at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq.

Marsters’ squadron trained Iraqi forces in the operation and maintenance of aerial surveillance equipment on the base, which housed 1,000 Air Force and 2,500 Army troops. As first sergeant he acted as a liaison to the Air Force troops and ensured the well-being of those stationed there. It was a job he relished, pouring care into building connections with the airmen and women, spending time with the chaplains, and coordinating recreation and morale-building activities.

Though Air Force personnel never left the base, they were subjected to the ever-present threat of randomly timed mortar rounds launched by insurgents. They also took part in nighttime “patriot details” in which Air Force personnel and soldiers lined the base’s runway as the bodies of fallen soldiers were loaded onto planes for transport back to the United States. But Marsters says he was most upset by what he felt was harsh treatment of the Iraqi nationals who came to work on the base.

“They were treated like criminals,” he says of the extensive searches and intimidation Iraqis received when going through base security. “Everyone in Iraq is not evil, bad, and nasty. It’s a very small group of people who are raising hell and trying to hurt the country. The average person is just trying to make some money and take care of his or her family.”

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On Scripture: Jesus, Poor Veterans, and the Grass That Suffers (Luke 21: 5-19)

GWImages / Shutterstock

Nearly 1 in 7 homeless adults are veterans. GWImages / Shutterstock

There is a popular African proverb that says, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This proverb highlights the reality that too often while nations and powerful entities fight amongst themselves, the common people of the land suffer the most. It is a historical truth that those who make the decision to wage wars (military, legislative, or otherwise) often have the least to lose. Sure, they may lose their prestige, position, or power, but in the end their essential well-being and access to basic necessities are maintained.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of those who are the instruments and casualties of war and political conflict.

Veterans: America’s Suffering Grass    

In the United States, a large number of veterans who fought in wars at the command of the political elite have returned home from the battlefield to a life of impoverishment and fickle social services. 

Not The Weapons But What They Defend

United States Marine Corps War Memorial,  Paul MacKenzie /

United States Marine Corps War Memorial, Paul MacKenzie /

I wish that we, as a people, would speak better words to those who have served in our wars. I fear that we do them, and ourselves, a disservice when we call them all heroes without letting them decide which deeds were heroic and which should be left unspoken. When we call everyone who wears a uniform a hero, we diminish heroism everywhere. 

I don’t mean we should refrain from thanking those who serve. If anything, we should thank them far more than we do, and our thanks should not just be in words. Our thanks should be sincere and long-lasting, and expressed in things like the best military hospitals we can afford, the best education we can provide, and our best efforts to ensure that their generation will be the last to endure what they have endured. Even if those ideals prove to be unattainable, we should not let that stop us from trying to attain them. As the Talmud says, “It is not your job to finish the work, but you are not free to walk away from it.” 

War Without End

Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly.

U.S. Marines occupy Baghdad, in March 2003, in front of the Al Fanar hotel. Photo courtesy Kathy Kelly.

Ten years ago, in March of 2003, Iraqis braced themselves for the anticipated “Shock and Awe” attacks that the U.S. was planning to launch against them. The media buildup for the attack assured Iraqis that barbarous assaults were looming. I was living in Baghdad at the time, along with other Voices in the Wilderness activists determined to remain in Iraq, come what may. We didn’t want U.S.-led military and economic war to sever bonds that had grown between ourselves and Iraqis who had befriended us over the past seven years. Since 1996, we had traveled to Iraq numerous times, carrying medicines for children and families in open violation of the economic sanctions that directly targeted the most vulnerable people in Iraqi society — the poor, the elderly, and the children.

I still feel haunted by children and their heartbroken mothers and fathers whom we met in Iraqi hospitals.

“I think I understand,” murmured my friend Martin Thomas, a nurse from the U.K., as he sat in a pediatric ward in a Baghdad hospital in 1997, trying to comprehend the horrifying reality. “It’s a death row for infants.” 

Afflictions of the Soul

Counter-insurgency wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequently place soldiers in morally ambiguous situations. What they did or didn’t do in those situations can leave lasting moral effects. Following an epiphany at an antiwar rally, Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock:

“… has devoted the years since then to tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called “moral injury.” In her current position at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, she has begun the first program in the nation to develop a treatment that she terms 'soul repair.'

“Moral injury might best be defined as an affliction of the soul, as distinct from a specific mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder. It arises, to speak in a very broad way, from the way a combatant’s actions in war seem to violate and thus undermine the most deeply held moral beliefs.”

Her “Soul Repair Center” is now teaching congregational leaders how to address moral injury among veterans.

How To Really Support Our Troops

Silhouette of U.S. soldier, © Oleg Zabielin /

Silhouette of U.S. soldier, © Oleg Zabielin /

A 10-year-old boy holding a grenade approaches a group of soldiers. He does not respond to their shouts. One shoots him with his M-16 and the boy crumbles to the ground, dead.

Did he have a choice? It was do or die, kill or be killed. Still he killed a little boy, and those images still haunt him.

This is a classic example of psychological trauma: A person is put in horrific life-threatening situation where they do not feel they have control. That's the situation he found himself in. It was a no-win scenario — kill a little boy or have you and your friends all die.

Soldier suicides have reached epidemic numbers. As the AP reports, More soldiers are taking their own lives than are falling in battle. Add on top of that, the many who suffer from PTSD, and who as a result find themselves estranged from their home, their loved ones, and indeed from themselves.

Deportations are Not the Way to Show Respect for Veterans

Photo: Dogtags on the Constitution, Sergey Kamshylin /

Photo: Dogtags on the Constitution, Sergey Kamshylin /

When I go out with my Dad, he often wears a cap identifying him as a Korean War veteran.  Over and over again, people tell him, “Thank you for serving.” Over and over again.

I’m always struck by the contrast between that appreciation and the sad, hidden truth about our country’s treatment of some other veterans. I’m speaking of the government’s detention and deportation of many immigrants who served in our armed forces but who are not yet citizens. 

The first time I heard about this was 1998. My friend’s husband, a Canadian who grew up in Texas and chose to serve in Vietnam had recently gotten a deportation order based on some old drug charges, the kind of thing many vets experienced. What horrified me then, and still does today, is that immigration judges could not grant an exception. Nothing could stop the deportation except a change in U.S. immigration laws.

Church Leaders Say Returning Vets Need Time, Attention

When Staff Sgt. Brandon Hill came home from his third tour in Iraq last year, he expected his wife and young daughters at the welcoming ceremony. What he didn't expect were the pastors, secretaries and members of their Assemblies of God church to be there, too.

“It was awesome -- the fact that they would give up their time to come see us back,” said Hill, who is stationed at Fort Sill, an Army installation in Lawton, Okla. “It really shows that they really care.”

As Veterans Day approaches, denominational leaders and chaplains with years of military service are calling on more churches to find ways to minister to the men and women who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chaplain Keith Ethridge, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Chaplain Center, said about 1 million military members have returned to civilian life -- with some continuing in Guard or Reserve forces -- after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While some churches, especially those near military installations, might advertise themselves as being “military friendly,” Ethridge and other leaders are trying to expand that universe to other American congregations.

“What we try to do is encourage, in general, a supportive atmosphere,” said Ethridge, whose center is in Hampton, Va. “We want our clergy and our churches at large to be aware of how they can make referrals when they have friends or loved ones in need of support.”

In recent years, the VA has ramped up training, including in rural areas, for clergy to learn more about veterans’ issues and how they can refer former military members facing physical and spiritual health challenges. It held eight training events for rural clergy in 2012, and more are planned for 2013.

As part of his new work as a chaplaincy executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, retired Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver is urging congregations to be places where veterans can turn as they make the transition home.

Carver knows the challenges firsthand: “I retired a year ago, and one of the hardest things for me to do is to transition back to a community.”