Soldiers and their families say homecoming after deployment not easy

By Maria Wiering
Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — When Heidi Sellars was preparing for her husband, Army National Guard Capt. Steven Sellars, to come home from Iraq in 2005, people often said things to her like, “Aren’t you just thrilled?” and “It’s going to be so great.”

However, she was not looking forward to the homecoming. “I know that sounds really sad,” she said, but “I just knew it was going to be a challenge.”

For a year and a half, she had been a single parent. She had gone through an at-risk pregnancy and left her job to stay at home with her son, Ryan, 3, and her new daughter.

Heidi Sellars, 32, said she expected the transition of having her husband, also 32, back home to be difficult, and it was.

“It’s not always such a happy reunion,” she said of military families after deployment. For her family, “it’s been a long process, and it still is.”

They participated in the Army National Guard’s family reintegration programs and turned to their own families for support. If their parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Hastings, had offered support, they would have utilized that, as well, they said.

Ministry to families challenged by postdeployment issues is often overlooked in parishes, said Joseph Michalak, diaconate formation director for the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese’s Division of Clergy and Personnel and Services.

“We’re not just talking about caring for that person. We’re talking about the entire structure of dynamics within a web of relationships,” Michalak added.

Families often change as they learn to live in the absence of their soldier, and when the soldier comes home, the family is unaware of how much change has taken place, he said. Soldiers are also changed by their combat experience.

The St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese is co-sponsoring a Minnesota Army National Guard seminar May 2 for clergy and pastoral leaders to address issues faced by veterans and families after the soldier’s return home.

Titled “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: How Churches Can Help Soldiers and Their Families Readjust After Combat,” the seminar is part of a National Guard outreach program that began in 2005 to help community leaders understand the challenges faced by returning veterans and their families.

The seminar seeks to inform clergy and parish leaders about the challenges of changed familial and relational dynamics for returning soldiers, as well as spiritual challenges soldiers face, said the Rev. John Morris, a Methodist minister who is a Minnesota Army National Guard chaplain.

Churches need to care for their returning soldiers “as a matter of justice, and as a matter of charity,” Michalak told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“It’s probably one of those areas of ministry that doesn’t appear on any official list anywhere, but is nonetheless very real and going to become larger in the months ahead, so it’s a prudent, wise and loving thing to be prepared to serve,” he said.

“Catholics put a high value on the institution of marriage,” Rev. Morris said. “No marriage does well with 22 months of separation — which is how long our Minnesota guard soldiers will have been gone by the time they return this fall.”

Rev. Morris outlined three main issues returning soldiers and their families face: renegotiating the marriage; renegotiating their role in the family; and, for the soldier, making the transition from being a warrior to being a citizen again.

This holistic approach to readjustment is a relatively new development, Rev. Morris said. “We’ve always counted on communities to bring our soldiers home and help them learn to be citizens again.”

However, public reaction to Vietnam War veterans revealed that some communities don’t always “bring their soldiers home,” he said.

Rev. Morris also plans to address soldiers’ spiritual lives at the May 2 seminar. Combat usually affects soldiers’ relationship with God in three ways: deepening faith or finding new faith, temporary disillusionment or deep cynicism and bitterness.

Priests can play a significant role as confessors, healing agents, reconcilers and mediators, he said.

However, clergy and church leaders are sometimes hesitant to reach out, Rev. Morris said. “I don’t see a lot of (Catholic or Protestant) pastors jumping in to reach out and do ministry to veterans and their families,” he said.

“Most pastors are pretty conflicted about the whole concept of war, much less this war, and not sure what to do,” he said. “They don’t want to do any harm, so they don’t do anything.”

He praised the archdiocese for reaching out to veterans and asking “How can we help our parishioners who are serving in the military and their families?”

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