Pastors’ luncheon addresses psychological effects of war, and how to respond
L to R: Chaplain Sparks, Dr. Drescher, Dr. Foy
“War changes everybody. No one who enters a war zone comes out the same way.”
This statement came from David W. Foy, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and Fuller adjunct faculty member, at a luncheon and workshop for pastors and other church leaders held Thursday, October 29, at Fuller’s Pasadena campus. Dr. Foy was joined by psychologist Kent D. Drescher, who works with the National Center for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), and retired Army Chaplain Ronald Sparks, speaking together on the needs of returning military servicepersons and their families, and how the church can care for them.
The luncheon was cosponsored by the Southern California Ecumenical Council and Fuller’s Office of Alumni/ae and Church Relations.
Men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan now number 1.8 million, and as many as 30 percent of them will suffer diagnosable psychological consequences, said Foy: combat-related PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and “moral injury”— shifts in one’s moral compass that can result from horrific experiences.
Multiple deployments are common for servicepersons now, unlike in previous wars, and all three speakers emphasized that this has served only to increase the incidence of damaging psychological consequences. And today’s wars of insurgency—where a solider doesn’t always know who the enemy is—intensify the potential trauma even more.
Traumatic events, especially those specific to wartime, can have a strong impact on a person’s faith experience, said Dr. Drescher, who works with veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan and studies the effects of war on spirituality. A stunning 60 percent of returnees state that they abandoned their faith in the warzone, he reported.
How is the church called to respond? “Clergy and chaplains need to engage in active outreach” to military returnees, Drescher said. “This means looking for them, finding them where they are, engaging them.”
Having a network of social support is key in helping returning military persons be resilient, Drescher asserted, “and this is where church communities can play such a critical role.” More specific ways a church can care for returnees, he suggested, are to welcome and celebrate them without judgment, be aware of potential problem areas and gently intervene, support their recovery efforts, and provide supportive resources both emotional and tangible.
“No one comes back unscathed,” stressed Chaplain Sparks, “even if they weren’t in combat.” We can all do our part when we encounter a veteran, he urged, by simply saying to that person, “Thank you for your service.” Hearing gratitude and affirmation rather than insults and indifference, he said, brings healing.