One of the few upsides to the kneeling controversy engulfing the NFL is that it’s reinforced the notion that there are few things in this country more sacred than the lives of our military men and women. Public support for and confidence in the military remains astronomically high, buoyed by the enormous respect most Americans have for those who serve in uniform.
Why, then, do we continue to look away from one of the most disturbing catastrophes befalling our military heroes? It’s estimated that about 22 veterans die from suicide per day. That’s nearly one per hour, a rate far above the average among the general public. The physical, emotional and spiritual brokenness giving rise to the suicide epidemic is destroying lives, families and tearing at the public institution we honor most.
Since 2007, the federal government has instituted various programs to reach at-risk soldiers, including ramped-up efforts on mental health screening and treatment. But the government being the government, it has failed our veterans in the most unconscionable ways and promised reforms have been painfully and inexcusably slow.
Into the breach have stepped private organizations which are doing what the government can’t---or won’t.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting with a group unique in the way it approaches healing some of our most vulnerable military veterans. Operation Restored Warrior (ORW) was founded in 2008 by Chief Master Sergeant Paul Lavelle, USAF (Ret), a former atheist who saw one big thing missing from the mission to help hurting vets: God.
Lavelle, who says he was called by Jesus to serve his fellow warriors, launched ORW literally on a shoestring and a prayer. Along with a few other dedicated veterans, he designed a program aimed at rescuing, rebuilding and restoring the soul, spirit and heart. He and his team save vets one by one, through faith.
In its nine years, ORW has saved approximately 800 lives, demonstrating that though it is small, it is mighty. And unlike top-heavy organizations, the lean ORW dedicates a whopping 93 percent of its donations to its restorative faith-based programs.
While ORW welcomes all faiths, it’s organized around five-day Jesus-focused immersion programs. These former and active duty soldiers don’t call these sessions “retreats”, because the U.S. military doesn’t retreat. They call them “drop zones”---combat terminology to describe a course they say is a spiritual “counterattack”---that usually take place in beautiful, remote mountain areas in Colorado, California and Virginia.
The “drop zones” are powerful programs led by specially trained facilitators---military veterans all---designed to build up the faith of those who have lost their way. They involve intensive spiritual intervention, prayer, and often brutally honest self-examination, with Jesus at the center. In this truly safe space, surrounded by fellow warriors who have gone through or are going through similar crises, they feel secure to open up, confide, experience catharsis—and heal.
It isn’t all super-intense programming. There is free time built into each day for activities such as fly-fishing, horseback riding, zip-lining or rest. Lavelle says these respites are also critical to aiding their spiritual restoration.
The bonds these men build with each other are astonishing, unbreakable. They lean on each other as they learn to lean once again on God. It’s profound to behold, never mind to experience.
Lavelle next wants to tailor a program specifically for female veterans and other women who may need this kind of healing as much as the men in their lives do.
In my few days with ORW, I saw God working in the hearts of these soldiers, many of whom had come to the program feeling irretrievably broken. After experiencing their “drop zone” and attending a reunion weekend (and some want or need multiple visits), they report moving out of darkness into light, forgiving others and themselves more easily, and enjoying a stronger faith.
The film “Hacksaw Ridge” recounts the true story of Cpl. Desmond Doss, a devout Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon and yet rescued 75 wounded soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. Dodging relentless enemy fire, he repeated a simple prayer: “Let me save just one more.”
That’s become the guiding principle of ORW, and under Lavelle’s leadership and the guidance of his extraordinary team, they are doing just that.
For more information, visit OperationRestoredWarrior.org.