Five years into Iraq war, Episcopal Church ministers on many fronts

Caring for soldiers and families, working for peace
March 18, 2008

Five years after the start of the war in Iraq, the Episcopal Church remains active on at least three fronts, including ministering to those involved in the fighting and their families, ministering to those who have come home, and continuing its call for peace in Iraq and the entire Middle East.

"I join many in this church who continue to work and pray for an end to the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told ENS. "We pray for our soldiers and their families, for the people of both countries, and for the refugees searching for shelter from the violence surrounding them."

"I have spent this week in the land we call holy and been reminded in countless ways that achieving a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis is essential for the future stability of the Middle East and Afghanistan. We seek a society of peace with justice, for all peoples of this world. None of us will enjoy security until all do."

Ministering to those who serve
As of late last year, seven Episcopal Church chaplains were serving in Iraq. Some of their stories are available here.

In one of them, Chaplain Ira Houck writes about celebrating Easter Monday Eucharist with a group of 13 young Navy, Army and Air Force military police assigned guard detainees in what Houck calls a remote fortress-like location in northern Iraq. One, a 19-year-old, told Houck that his father was an Episcopal priest and that he had been an acolyte up until he joined the Army the summer before.

"This is no ordinary gathering of Christians on Easter," Houck writes. "It is a feast of compassion and assurance. It is a celebration of the Incarnation, God with us …One young man takes the cup to his lips. His eyes swell with tears and these tears run down the cheeks of his face and drop into the chalice. He drinks it.

"I am struck with the image. It is a moment of revelation. The tears of humanity mingle with the Blood of the Savior. The Incarnation becomes more vivid to us in this moment. I am struck by the union of Christ’s Blood mingled with the tears of a young man in worship. Through the eyes of faith I see Jesus offering Himself, mingling His blood, with the cries of humanity."

In late September 2007, Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies George Packard told ENS that, through his work with the church's military chaplains, he was seeing and hearing of more and more soldiers who are "ragged, depleted and fatigued to the point of not functioning" after less than a year and sometimes as little as nine months between tours of duty. Such little downtime time between active duty, Packard said, does not allow soldiers to cope with their combat-earned post-traumatic stress issues.

The Episcopal Church's active-duty chaplains and those in various state-side settings are ministering to soldiers who face unique demands put on them by the pace and number of deployments to Iraq.

At least 3,990 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq in the last five years, according to a March 18 Associated Press report. Although estimates of Iraqi deaths vary, the World Health Organization recently reported that its research suggested that 151,000 civilians died as a result of the fighting between the start of the war and June 2006.

Ministering to those who wait and those who return
In the same time period, AP reported, 29,395 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Defense Department's weekly tally. Another report said that by December, 224,000 had applied for disability benefits because of health issues, and 260,000 had been treated at veterans' medical facilities. More soldiers are returning home after having suffered traumatic wounds, due in large part to major changes in battlefield medicine.

"People are surviving after these wounds and the question is how we as a society adjust to these wounds," Packard told ENS on March 19.

Some wounds are extremely obvious while others, especially those involving brain trauma, are not so obvious and "these are injuries that are going to go on for a long time or for the rest of their lives," said the Rev. Babs Meairs, recently hired as field coordinator in the Chaplaincies office.

Both Packard and Meairs said that Episcopal chaplains, both military and civilian, are also ministering to the unique issues faced by National Guard and reservists who are returning from combat. Reservists are civilians, usually former active-duty members of the armed forces, who have careers outside of the military during peacetime and who train regularly to refresh their skills.

Ninety percent of all veterans come home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Packard and Meairs said. Many have trouble re-adjusting to civilian life. This is especially true of those reservists who do not return to a military base where they can more easily find resources and people who have had experiences similar to their own, Meairs added.

"They're kind of isolated," she said.

Thus, Meairs said, parish clergy and members need to know who among them are Iraq veterans and "be patient with them," welcoming them and offering resources but not expecting them to make the switch back to civilian life quickly.

"Sometimes folks are showing up at church and not feeling welcome," she said.

Chaplains and parish clergy are also learning how to minister to the families of those who are deployed and those who have returned home. "I worry about the families," Packard said, citing issues of marital discord and attempted suicide as well the challenge of re-adjusting to family life after living in the "anxiety-ridden environment" of Iraq.

Family stress begins at the time of deployment and carries through a tour of duty as well, Packard said. Modern communications such as cell phones and instant messaging have kept combat troops in closer contact with their families.

Packard, a veteran of the Viet Nam war, recalled having to arrange a daisy chain of late-night calls, including using ham radio operators, to call home. Today's soldiers can often contact their families more than once a day. Often when they do, it's in the middle of dinner or a toddler's temper tantrum, he said, and they get a very clear view of how their absence strains their family.

To help with all of these issues, the Chaplaincies office developed the Home Support Team project (HOST) as a way to provide parishes with information and resources they can use to better minister to returning veterans. Packard said the program aims to help Episcopalians work with members of other faith communities to connect veterans and the families of deployed soldiers, and learn from them what help they need.

The program will help parish members, both clergy and lay, "show that they are willing to hear the veterans' story," Meairs said.

More information about how some Episcopal congregations and dioceses minister to military personnel and their families is available here.

Episcopal priests have been among the reservists who have been deployed to Iraq, and Meairs said they, their parishes and their families have been challenged by their deployments. There are questions of who will minister to their congregations while they are gone and their need, as with any other soldiers, to have time with their families when they return home.

Packard said his office has developed its own "therapy protocol" for returning Episcopal Church chaplains that requires more debriefing and support that the chaplains may have received from their service branch.

Working for peace
The coincidence of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war falling in the middle of Holy Week is not lost on the Rev. Gary Commins, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Long Beach, California, and the president of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF).

"What could be more appropriate?" he asked, adding that the story of Holy Week shows that "Jesus is the victim of every act of violence."

Commins noted that, even at the near hour of his death, Jesus healed the ear of a slave of the high priest after one of Jesus' apostles had cut it off in anger. The gospel accounts of Matthew and John say that Jesus ordered Peter to put away his sword after he attacked the slave.

Christians must preach this message to a world that believes in the redemptive power of violence, he said. Not only does war not work, Commins said, but neither does violence of any kind, and so EPF offers non-violence training as part of its mission.

EPF has also spoken with federal lawmakers in an ongoing effort to find a way to end the war in Iraq. The organization currently supports passage of U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 5507, which EPF Executive Director Jackie Lynn said is "not a pie-in-the-sky bill." The proposed legislation would require the "safe, complete, and fully-funded redeployment of United States Armed Forces and contractor security forces from Iraq and to prohibit the establishment of any enduring or permanent United States military bases in Iraq, and for other purposes."

Both Commins and Lynn stress that Episcopalians can work for peace while still honoring those who fight.

"I think that people really support the troops who are following their orders," Lynn said.

Packard notes this attitude as well. "People will celebrate the warrior but hate the war," he said.

"We want to pray for peace and pray for protection of the people who are serving in harm's way," said Meairs, herself a Viet Nam veteran. "I'd prefer that we didn't have to send anyone into combat."

The Chaplaincy office offers prayer resources here.

Church's stance on the Iraq war
Before the war began the Episcopal Church urged caution in making the decision to invade Iraq. In the five years since, the church has called for care and prayer for veterans and their families (along with others serving in both Afghanistan and Iraq) and better treatment of people displaced by the war. The church's statements have been set in the larger context of its call for peace and stability throughout the region.

In October 2002, the House of Bishops wrote a letter to Congress as the members debated a resolution authorizing military action in Iraq offering the bishops' prayers on their behalf, but declaring that, while they recognized that war is sometimes unavoidable, "we do not believe that war with Iraq can be justified at this time."

In late January 2003, then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold called for the Bush Administration to "exhaust all diplomatic and multilateral initiatives" as the alternative to a unilateral assault on Iraq.

The 75th General Convention, meeting in June 2006, passed Resolution D020, which called upon Congress and Bush to "immediately develop for implementation a plan for the stabilization of Iraq, to be followed by the prompt withdrawal of U.S. Armed Forces from Iraq, to provide for a transfer of peacekeeping functions to an international peacekeeping force, to work through international and Iraqi organizations in the reconstruction of Iraq’s civil and economic infrastructure, and for the full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty."

The resolution also called on Episcopalians "as an act of penitence, to oppose and resist through advocacy, protest, and electoral action the continuation of the war in Iraq, and encourage the President and Congress to take proactive steps to end our participation as soon as possible."

That resolution and Resolution D019 called for continued prayers and care for those serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.

During its September 2007 meeting in New Orleans, the House of Bishops passed a resolution offered by Packard which called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, care and support of those troops and for those people who have become refugees because of the war.

In March 2007, the Episcopal Church's Executive Council, its governing body between meetings of General Convention, passed Resolution INC016 which called, in part, for the U.S. government "in consultation with leaders in Iraq and in its neighboring countries, to set and announce a deadline for full military disengagement, recognizing the sacrifice of U.S. forces in Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people."

The resolution also said that the Executive Council "believes that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is central to the search for peace in the region, and therefore urgently draws attention to existing Church policy that encourages the U.S. Government to pursue evenhandedly a two-state solution with other international partners that ends the occupation, provides full recognition of Israel and Palestine by the nations of the world as well as security for both, with a shared Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine."

In addition, Council recommended in Resolution INC017 that the U.S. government take a series of actions to address "the severe humanitarian crisis of refugees and others being displaced by the ongoing violence resulting from the war in Iraq."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.

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