Ministry Idea: Vet to Vet Discussion Group

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Disability Concerns asked Dr. Heinen to do a presentation at a conference we held earlier this year about a Vet to Vet discussion group that he runs at his church in Waupun, Wisconsin. These are the edited notes from that presentation. 

Preface:

Disabilities that are discussed at this conference include physical, developmental, emotional, sensory, and recently added adjustment problems of veterans (people who have had prior military service) returning to civilian life.

Reasons or basis for Vet to Vet Discussion Groups:  

  1. Former or returning from combat adjustment problems that veterans manifest and that are considered abnormal behavior and/or mental illnesses include alcohol abuse or drug abuse; anger, withdrawal, abusive or other significant extraordinary behavior; homelessness and criminal or other severe behavior changes.  
  2. Servicemen, especially soldiers and marines, are taught and trained how to kill.  
  3. Adjustment problems of returning servicemen and women now make up the greatest number of newly recognized disabilities.

Adjustment problems of prior wars veterans compared:

World War I and II veterans returned and “picked up” from where their lives were before wartime service with occasional “different or changed behavior” or maybe problems with alcohol abuse. Korean vets had about the same problems as vets from prior wars with somewhat increased incidence. Vietnam veterans had more alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness and more severe and increased incidence of all adjustment problems because that war was a “different war”. There was much questioning of the validity of our engagement and was it a justifiable war? Also the enemy was different without value of the life of their fighters and would send hordes into battle to overcome our troops. One vet said ”they just kept coming and I just had to keep my finger on the trigger of my machine gun." Also drugs were readily available in Vietnam. Finally, during the Kennedy era our mental health facilities were closed which drastically increased the number of homeless people with severe mental health issues including some vets.

A universal question with each war is whether this war is a “Just War” or morally justified? Or is any war morally justified? Many soldiers have this question in their minds and ask “Is what I am doing justifiable?” This question can be discussed at great length with Biblical answers found and debated.

Our modern Middle East wars have new stressors and problems for our soldiers. The enemy is not identifiable as he is without a uniform. He uses civilians as cover and children as combatants. Who knows whether that young boy coming toward us is fitted with an explosive vest? Also, the improvised explosive devices may be anywhere and may be in the roadway right in front of us. Multiple deployments of our troops also cause instability in the lives of our “civilian soldiers” and their families. A major stress is the Rules of Engagement which are compulsory for soldiers now and which could be disregarded in prior wars when the choice was life or death of the soldier. Now, if a soldier disregards them, the result can be a court martial or prison (stockade) time of the soldier.

Current approach to and treatment of Post Wartime or Combat Veterans:

Increased incidence of return to civilian life adjustment problems and the increased types of those problems has increased an awareness and has resulted in studies of those problems and also categorization and diagnosis labeling. Treatment approaches have also changed and become more specific to the diagnosis. Psychiatry treatment has changed significantly during the past 30 to 40 years with counseling or psychotherapy almost being replaced by prescribing psychotherapeutic medication and adjustments of the medication. The medications used are under quite severe control of the government. Behavior changes now receive more legal attention and with more administration of legal controls and/or punishment.

Veterans Administration (VA) and hospitals are being more specific as to diagnosis and rendering more specific treatment. Medication, as prescribed, was found to be inadequate and counseling was found to be more effective, and it or a combination of the two are now more frequently the treatment of choice. Counseling, properly done, is asking questions and then listening. Listening is most successful, and it is also very effective when a veteran is talking with a fellow veteran (Vet to Vet). Vet to Vet listening or discussion is of great value and effectiveness as trust and understanding is more easily established between Vets. Camaraderie and “brother to brother” sharing is part of fighting and training together and is naturally there with Vet to Vet sharing. One Vet will not easily question other vets actions or be judgmental but instead will be understanding and encouraging.

In Wisconsin and some other states, there are Veteran’s Courts. If a Vet is criminally charged or cited and needs to appear in court another Vet can appear in court with the charged Vet. If the citation or charges appear to be somewhat as a result of or affected by combat experience or war exposure then a request is made for special consideration in determining punishment or disposition of the case. The judge can then rule accordingly.

In Milwaukee, WI,  we have an organization, Dryhootch (meaning without alcohol), which was started by a Vietnam vet who was having adjustment problems and legal problems. He started with meetings in a church with lots of coffee and invitations to vets, with problems, to come and talk. This outreach has become very successful and is considered one of the most effective veterans treatment programs in the country. They are now organized and large enough to become involved in helping with all social problems including homelessness and have their house headquarters as a place of meeting with a second site for most of their social work activities. There are many other locations in Wisconsin and upper Illinois where coffee houses or discussion groups have begun as outreaches affiliated with the Milwaukee program.

Our church, Trinity Reformed of Waupun, WI, has begun such a Vet to Vet discussion group and has patterned it after the Dryhootch model but without a definite connection. We will present the gospel to the veteran only if the discussion leads to that stage and following the desire of the vet. A church may “scare off” or deter a veteran from coming to socialize. One can only hope and pray that this ministry will become a part of the evangelism outreach of our church, which is the reason for the existence of the church of Christ. When the sharing of the gospel results in a vet coming to the Lord and inclusion of the new believer in our church, one can only imagine the new energy and leadership that can become evident in the Kingdom.

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  • Disability Concerns > Congregational Care
  • Elders
  • Resource > Presentation
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