Serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, the Rev. David E. "Dave" Smith, a retired Army chaplain, had four near-death experiences within a month and a half.
"When I came back from Iraq, I was changed," he said. "I was going through my own soul wounds."
Moral injury has dominated current discussions about veteran care, he said. "What that looks like is a veteran who has experienced a conflict in their conscience because of something they themselves have done or witnessed."
In dealing with his own wounds, Smith began talking with the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, executive director of JustPeace. JustPeace is a United Methodist center that prepares and assists leaders and faith communities to engage conflict constructively in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation and restoration of community.
Smith recently became coordinator for JustPeace's Soul Care Initiative, which provides churches with a congregational toolkit and other resources to start conversations about veteran care.
"The Soul Care Initiative became a part of JustPeace last July as a result of my own experience," Smith said. "I was diagnosed having PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) a little over three years ago. As I look at my own life, I see that I can provide and make a critical contribution in my community and in my family. Even though I myself am wounded, I still have a role. There are others out there, like myself, who are doing the same.
"The media often labels us as heroes or broken," Smith continued. "The Soul Care Initiative is valuable because it introduces to our churches our veteran community and the sacrifices that have been made."
Smith started out as a full-time pastor and a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves before becoming an endorsed chaplain in 1984. He is a member of the Susquehanna Conference.
"What I thought was going to be three years turned into 30 because, every year, an experience happened in my journey as an Army chaplain that confirmed and reaffirmed that was where I was supposed to serve," he said. "I loved it immensely."
Leader of chaplains
The Rev. Scott Henry was an Air Force chaplain for 29 years, after also first serving as pastor in a local church. Today, he is director of extension ministry and pastoral care in the Division of Ordained Ministry at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. In that role, he works with chaplains serving in all branches of the armed forces and in other settings.
"God surrounded me with people who helped me make the transition" from pastor to chaplain, he said. One of Henry's favorite things about chaplaincy was how it enabled him to spend time with people in a variety of settings. "I think you get invited into people's lives — as a chaplain — in amazing ways, sacred moments."
A privilege, he said, is spending "a lot of time as a military chaplain with a lot of young people," he said. "They are forming their first version of their adult identity, and you have a chance to help them develop."
Military chaplains also do a lot of counseling, Henry said. "Sometimes you never see the people again," he said. "Sometimes you don't know if you've made any difference or not, but I believe we do. I believe God uses every one of those encounters to bring hope and help and some sense of meaning."
‘Really sacred work'
Col. Steven Patrick "Pat" McCain, command chaplain for Pacific Air Forces, which covers "52 percent of the earth's surface ... from Hollywood to Bollywood," works with chaplains to help meet the spiritual needs of U.S. Air Force personnel and their families.
Before becoming a chaplain, McCain was a pastor to parishioners who were the first people to encourage him to consider the military. He is a member of the New Mexico Conference.
"There was nothing in me that wanted to join the military. That did not appeal to me at all," McCain said. "Over a period of almost seven years, God really began speaking to me through the parishioners.
"I had a distinct calling in my soul to go into the pastoral ministries. That's why I pursued that calling for seven years. And in that time, I had another specific calling to the military, and it was as real and as vibrant as that first calling.
"The military is very different because there are, in many ways, life and death issues. You're really walking with people at some of the most intimate and important times in their lives. We do all the regular things pastors would do, but you also go to war with folks who are laying their lives on the line. It's really sacred work. For us to bring healing, with a capital ‘H,' to their life is a real privilege."
‘This is what heals'
Healing is a focus for Larry Malone, a retired Navy captain and former director of men's ministry for the General Commission on United Methodist Men who uses his experiences to help wounded veterans find hope.
Malone leads a weekly group at Operation Stand Down Tennessee, an organization that serves honorably discharged veterans.
"For about an hour, we focus on the care of their soul," Malone said. "The ability of a person to be still and quiet and to receive love in that environment ... that's what I talk about. Are you really alone when you're in solitude? And if not, who's there? If you want to get to know your soul, you really can't do it unless you're in solitude."
Malone is in the process of publishing an eight-week study tool called "Soul Fit," which he hopes will be implemented in the military to prepare soldiers to deal with the trauma they may face.
"There are simple things that can be done alone and in solitude to know your soul, to become a friend of your soul, to find a presence that's there that loves you," Malone said.
That divine presence of love is God, he continued, but the program he designed does not contain overt evangelism so that it will be more likely to comply with government standards.
Malone said he hopes this tool might help address a critical problem in the veteran community.
"There's an epidemic going on here," Malone said of the veteran suicide rate. "If you put moral injury on top of what were already traumatic events, we are setting people up for what will become a soul wound." Spiritual wounds are often beyond the reach of clinical and psychological care, which at best can only treat and medicate the symptoms of PTSD.
"The one thing that's capable of touching the soul is love, and the love we are talking about is divine. There is no other medicine that is going to be able to heal the soul. This is what heals."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2015.