Backstory: Enlisting churches to help soldiers

A military chaplain in Minnesota encourages clergy to act as counselors to National Guard troops returning from Iraq.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

John Morris, a military chaplain, stands at the front of a crowded conference room dressed in desert fatigues and tan combat boots, commanding his audience's attention with a tone barely above a whisper. Addressing some 30 Minnesota church leaders, Major Morris opens with a story about his time in Anbar Province, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq.

"When the insurgents found out a new unit was there, they would walk a child in front of our convoys," he recalls. "What does a good Minnesota person do? Stop. You only do that one time, because you get ambushed and someone gets maimed or killed."

It's a chilling story, which Morris heard from numerous soldiers in combat, meant to convey the reality of war – and the kind of psychological stress soldiers go through in the field and when they come home.

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Morris is on a mission. Since returning from the Middle East, the deputy state chaplain of the Minnesota Army National Guard has labored to convince members of Minnesota's religious community – many of whom oppose the war – to support the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than that, he wants them to be frontline counselors and comforters.

"Sociologists or psychologists – they're great, they're helpful," Morris tells the audience. "But when I get to this issue, I have to always tell them, 'I'm sorry but there are people better qualified than you to handle this: religious leaders.' You're the healers. You bring reconciliation."

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Morris is tall, with close-cropped brown hair and smooth features. He projects a calm, commanding presence that comes from experience hard earned. In April 2004, he was deployed with the US troops who surrounded Fallujah in response to four American contractors being killed and mutilated. While the battle for Fallujah raged, Morris circled the area in an armored Humvee offering Protestant Easter sunrise services to the support troops. The brutality of the conflict tested even his Christianity.

"That's probably the closest I've ever come to hate," says Morris."I came so close to the mentality: 'Kill them all and God is on our side.' Spiritual discipline held me back from that abyss."

Morris's spiritual discipline was still being tested two months after he returned home to Roseville, Minn. He was experiencing violent mood swings. His anger erupted at the slightest provocation, as when someone cut in front of him in a line at the airport. Morris wondered what combat soldiers must face after coming home.

"I'm a chaplain and I didn't pull a trigger and didn't take a human life, and I'm this mad," he says.

The horrors of war do shadow American soldiers. According to a 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 17 percent of combat veterans arrive home with mental health issues, ranging from depression to posttraumatic stress disorder.

National Guard soldiers face their own peculiar problems. They experience a rapid change from military to civilian life. In less than two weeks, once their tours in Iraq or Afghanistan are up, they can go from dodging roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes, to picking up Starbucks and rushing to a business meeting. Moreover, not since World War II have so many Guard soldiers served in combat and had to reintegrate into civilian life.

The Pentagon has learned – often the hard way – that returning soldiers need long-term support with the transition. "We didn't do it for the Vietnam vets, and in a sense we're paying for that now," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.

Guard soldiers are entitled to the same counseling and support services offered to members of other branches of the military. But they often live hundreds of miles from the nearest military post, which can make counseling difficult.

Minnesota's program is unusual because – in addition to offering spiritual counseling – it requires Guard soldiers to report back to their barracks 30, 60, and 90 days after they're home. This is actually in violation of Pentagon policy, which insists that Guard members are "on leave" and cannot be called back. But Morris calls this time the "golden, hour," and feels it's critical to keep members connected and supported.

"I'm proud to tell you that, in Minnesota, we are in open violation of that Department of Defense policy," he says.

In the last year, he's had two soldiers tell him that they planned to kill themselves after they reported back to their barracks. Morris says he got those soldiers counseling, which they may not have received otherwise.

Another soldier Morris helped was Sgt. Ron Huff, an 18-year veteran of the Army National Guard. Sergeant Huff recently spent a year in Iraq clearing improvised explosive devises from the highway between Tikrit and Kirkuk. In his first month home, he couldn't switch out of his Iraq driving style and was ticketed four times for speeding by the same sheriff's deputy. Later, he experienced flashbacks, turned to alcohol, and totaled his motorcycle.

In Iraq, Huff commanded 35 soldiers – who affectionately called him "Huff Daddy" – but back home he didn't know where, or how, to ask for help. That's when Morris walked into his office. As Huff recalls it, Morris made him realize that "I'm not the only one who feels crazy." Huff and Morris now work together. "He's the smart guy and I'm the common sense guy," Huff says.

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In the year sinc Morris started his church outreach programcalled "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," Minnesota hasn't lost a Guard to suicide. The idea is to ask churches with soldiers in their congregations to become "military friendly." Morris encourages them to take care of the service members and their families – bringing them meals, providing marital counseling, or just listening.

Pastors, he says, can publicly welcome soldiers home and acknowledge their service. They can also watch for signs of reckless behavior.

The program "is a step in the right direction," says Prof. Segal, the military sociologist. "I think it will make the transition easier."

Yet not everyone is enamored of Morris's program. Gary Kohls, a lay member of Every Church a Peace Church, a national group that encourages churches to preach pacifism, says Christians shouldn't engage in combat, even if they're soldiers. "We take the stance that [combat trauma] could be prevented totally, by refusing to engage in homicidal violence," says Dr. Kohls, the leader of a worship community in Duluth, Minn. "I'm very disappointed when churches are either silent or vocally in support of killing."

It took until late July for Minnesota's religious leaders to accept an invitation to hear Morris address the problems faced by returning Guard soldiers. When the chaplain finished his presentation and the applause died down, he made a heartfelt request. "Please, do not repeat what we did to Vietnam veterans," he said.

One pastor who listened that morning – and won't – was Don Britt. His church, the United Church of Christ, has opposed the war in Iraq. "I hate war and I hate this war in particular," says Mr. Britt. "But I have a son there."

Britt says listening to Morris will help him raise his congregation's awareness of his son, Dan, and other soldiers' experience. "Hopefully, a lot more people will make the distinction between the politicians making the decisions to send these guys to war and our soldiers," he says.

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