VETERANS DAY: Chaplains, churches deploy in ministry to service members

By Brandon Elrod

[ALPHARETTA, Ga.]—On his first deployment, retired Brigadier General Chaplain Carlton Fisher recalls being shot at one night while out for a jog. In Afghanistan, he was near several firefights. At one point, insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade at a tower on the forward operating base where he was stationed.

Chaplains may serve as noncombatants in the military, but that does not necessarily mean that they’re far from combat when they are serving troops on the battlefield.

During his final deployment in 2008, Chaplain Fisher traveled with the 926th Engineer Brigade that was stationed at Camp Victory in Sadr City, a section of Baghdad, Iraq. Many may remember Sadr City as the site of the April 2004 “Black Sunday” attack and the ensuing battle that’s been the subject of a book by reporter Martha Raddatz and is currently the subject of a National Geographic mini-series, both titled The Long Road Home.

Four main responsibilities for military chaplains, according to Brigadier Gen. Chaplain Carlton Fisher:

  1. Be strong leaders in their faith tradition.
  2. Champion religious freedom for people of all faiths.
  3. Be advisors to commanders regarding morals, morale and religious issues.
  4. Counsel with a pastor’s heart.

Fisher’s unit arrived as a group of military engineers whose objective centered on repairing the war-torn city—a task in which few people realize the U.S. military specializes and seeks to accomplish. Though the Mahdi army had been defeated by the time the 926th Engineer Brigade arrived, those loyal to the cause were still in and around the city. Snipers were picking off soldiers as they went about their duties, and insurgents placed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the city.

“About every two days, I was traveling ‘outside the wire’ on very dangerous roads,” Fisher recalled. “I had friends who were killed, and I ministered to soldiers who lost their friends. If you’re a good chaplain, you’re out there where your men are.”

Maj. Gen. Chaplain Douglas Carver currently serves as the executive director of chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board (NAMB). After years of service as a military chaplain, he now encourages Southern Baptist military chaplains who will encounter service members who are struggling with significant issues of life and death.

“Chaplains have never played an insignificant role in the lives of our troops, especially in a combat environment,” says Carver. “The very nature of war has always prompted our service members to reflect on God, life and death, eternity and immortality.”

When people envision ministry to veterans and service members, they typically imagine serving overseas in an intense combat scenario or helping veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicidal thoughts.

Such needs are, without a doubt, significant. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that, in 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day, but far from being beyond the ability of the local church, Fisher believes that the church can be a leader in ministering to veterans and service members, even those who struggle with psychological issues.

Click here for a list of 12 recommendations for churches looking to minister to service members, veterans and their families.

“Our healthy churches are some of the best resources for those who are going through PTSD or moral injury,” a form of trauma associated with committing morally troubling acts, says Fisher. “Churches know how to help people who are going through grief. They know there’s not a quick fix to any of these issues.”

Fisher, whose resume includes 28 years of service as an Army Reserve chaplain with 6.5 years on active duty and advanced degrees in theology and ministry, believes that church members can provide excellent ministry simply by being good listeners.

“If a person is healthy and a good listener, then they’re going to do a good job” ministering to veterans, Fisher says. Just sitting down and hearing an armed service member share stories and struggles can make a huge difference.

Pastor Jeff Struecker serves as the lead pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga. near one of the largest military installations in the U.S., Fort Benning. Even though the needs facing our veterans and soldiers may seem daunting, Struecker says that military families “have the same problems that many other families have.” The added pressures of months-long deployments and the dangers associated with a positon in the military just make those needs more urgent.

Aside from being a pastor in a town with a large military population—nearly 120,000 military personnel and their families live in and around Fort Benning—Pastor Struecker also served in the Army for 23 years, 13 in a combat role and 10 as a chaplain.

“I have a unique perspective,’ says Struecker. “When I was a solider, the single greatest thing you could do for me was take care of my family, and I’m sure most warriors I know feel the same way.”

Fisher and Struecker both agreed that helping the family with routine tasks while a spouse is deployed—such as yard work, car maintenance or mentoring the kids—goes a long way in serving military families.

“Deployment is a crisis moment for military families, especially the first time around,” says Fisher.

Churches can also send mementos, letters and care packages to soldiers while they’re serving overseas. Fisher mentioned how his church sent him a bandana with prayers written on it, and though it was a simple gesture, it meant a lot to him.

“I had that prayer cloth in my helmet every time I went out,” Fisher remembers.

While a church like Calvary Baptist Church may be stationed near a large military installation, a church that’s not located in a major military town will still have opportunities for ministering to veterans and service members.

“You don’t have to be next to a huge base,” says Struecker. “If you have the national guard or the military reserves near you, then you have an opportunity to reach military members who may be in a tougher spot” than those located near a military base. Large bases have amenities, such as hospitals or support groups, that are not readily accessible elsewhere.

Your church can honor and serve the military by recognizing special days:

  1. Veterans Day
  2. Memorial Day
  3. Independence Day
  4. Military Branch Birthdays

“If your church wanted to get involved,” says Fisher, “put a dot on a map [marking your church’s location] and draw a ten-mile diameter circle around your church and ask, ‘Is there a VA hospital near me or any other military office or outpost?’”

Many of these installations will have chaplains associated with them, and a church “could reach out to those chaplains, host them and bring them together to help them create a network that they don’t have time to create themselves,” suggests Fisher. “You would learn the needs of the veterans and military personnel in that area, and your church would learn how to become a great referral” whenever needs arise.

“Because of what they do for our country,” Streucker says of those serving in the military, “they deserve the church’s ministry.”

Veterans Day serves as an excellent reminder for churches. “This day gives us the opportunity to thank God for the millions of men and women who have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy,” says Carver.

“I pray that Southern Baptist churches set the standard for loving, caring and praying for our veterans and their families. As we welcome them into the safety and security of our congregations, let’s look for intentional ways to disciple them as key players in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.

Published November 10, 2017