Clergy Helping Vets

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When American service members come home, smiles can quickly turn to sadness. The emotional wounds of war have become an invisible epidemic.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) ARE SAID TO affect 31 percent of America’s service members, or 300,000 men and women who have served their country.

Colonel David Sutherland recounts, "When I came home I had difficulties fitting in and I had difficulties connecting."

Sutherland is the Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Warrior and Family Support. He's the point man for the for coordinating a myriad of non-governmental agencies including faith-based initiatives. He's open about his own experiences in hopes that other service members will seek help as well.

He says "My issues manifested themselves in front of my family. My wife of 25 years didn't understand what I was going through and neither did my kids and I used to isolate myself or lash out and I had to ask for help."

The military has reached out to clergy members like the Rev. Tom Carter, for help.

Carter’s Church of the Nativity, near Baltimore, is part of the Partners In Care program, one of several programs in the country that see clergy as first responders. Veterans, the programs’ advocates say, are more likely to open up to a minister of God about what is troubling them, rather than seek medical help, which may go on their military records.

"Everyone comes back from war with traumatic stress,” Carter says. Some develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the stress always has a spiritual element to it."

Carter says he saw many soldiers witnessing unspeakable carnage ask, "Where was God when I needed God? When my friends were dying?"

Both military and medical experts agree that while clergy are invaluable in helping veterans heal, they need to know how to recognize the signs of deep psychological problems.

Dr. John Fromson, from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says, "We ... discovered that the clergy, some of them were really not prepared to handle this. And by not being prepared, [I mean] just by not being aware it was even an issue."

Fromson trains clergy members as part of the Home Base program in Boston. He says isolation, hyperactivity and flashbacks are conditions that can lead to alcoholism and domestic abuse.

"There is help,” he says, “and it works. The key is overcoming the barriers to getting help, and that's where the clergy come in."

When clergy are trained to recognize the signs of PTSD, they can then refer service members to trained professionals to treat the problem.

It's our job to help them, to the extent that we're able,” says Carter, whose son served in the military. “To help them understand that God never turned his back on them and that God is part of even those awful things, and that when they are scared and shed tears ... I believe in a God who sheds tears along with them."