Photo by Kelly West Mars.
Each year, parents and youth workers alike send off high school graduates to serve in the military. While much of our research at FYI has been focused on Sticky Faith in college and beyond, we have been well aware of the need to explore how faith can be nurtured for graduates who head off to service in one of the armed forces.
FYI Advisory Council member Mark Maines serves as a U.S. Naval Chaplain, currently assigned to the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan. We recently asked Mark to help us understand some of the unique issues facing military personnel and their families and how we can both prepare and support those who leave our homes and ministries with faith that sticks.
How would you describe the current spiritual landscape of military personnel, as you have experienced it?
I can only speak for what I have encountered here in Okinawa, and Okinawa is a bit unusual. For instance, many of the Marines and Sailors I work with are here on their first tour straight out of boot camp. Immediately, many young men and women find themselves away from home, having to adjust to the military lifestyle, their new assignment, and a foreign culture. This is often a hard adjustment.
There are many parallels between this adjustment and the transition one makes into a college setting. It’s a time of great autonomy, it’s a time to explore values and behaviors, and it’s a time to be away from home. At first glance, the Marine Corps can appear to be a fairly “godless” environment. However, I have encountered numerous young Marines who are involved in Bible studies, committed to their faith, and committed to modeling a righteous kind of life while in the Corps.
What does “Sticky Faith” look like for a new military member? What are some of the common features you have seen among those whose faith seems to survive the transition well?
Connecting to a faith community is monumental in helping faith “stick” in this environment. Marines are, well…Marines. They are warriors. They pride themselves on being the “first to fight” and they are the best in the world at it. Generally speaking, Marines don’t do well “in garrison.” They are trained to be at war, and so when Marines are in a location either waiting to be deployed, or waiting for war to occur, sometimes things can get a little out of hand. This is what makes connecting to a community (even just 2-3) of like-minded people so important. The service members whose faith seems to be thriving are also the individuals who have connected with other service members who are taking their faith seriously.
I am reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 4, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”
The Marine Corps understands “strength in numbers” as solid war-fighting doctrine; however, it is also spiritual wisdom when it comes to helping faith stick.
What else have you seen that helps faith stick for high school graduates entering the military?
The presence of a mentor also makes a remarkable difference in service members’ lives. In the particular regiment I serve, which supports about 1,300 Marines, there is a strong mentorship program that covers everything from core values, physical fitness, financial wellbeing, to marital wholeness and spiritual vitality. A secondary effect of this mentoring effort is that it lowers negative behaviors across the regiment. Simply stated, fewer Marines do fewer bad things when leadership engages a strong mentoring program.
What are some of the most common struggles you see among young service members? How do you see these struggles affecting their faith?
The military reflects society as a whole. So any struggle that exists on the outside certainly exists on the inside. Alcohol abuse, drug use, and sexual abuse 1 are all everyday issues. It’s no secret that the military can be a harsh environment, and for many it is.
Perhaps the most serious struggle currently facing service members is the tension between taking life and valuing their own. According to a recent study conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis, “In the past 3 years, the Marine Corps, like the other Services, has experienced a rise in the number and rate of suicides. In 2008, the Marine Corps had its highest suicide rate since 1995—a total of 41 active-duty Marines (a rate of 19.5 in 100,000). In 2009, the number and rate were even higher: 52 active-duty Marines committed suicide (a rate of 24.9 in 100,000). 2
This is the highest suicide rate since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Although Marine Corps leadership is taking proactive action and focusing on the importance of leadership at all levels of the organization in addressing this issue, we still have yet to determine how to best reach out to Marines and Sailors who are thinking about harming themselves or what resources they really need after returning from a combat tour.
For families with parents currently serving in the military who have teenagers in the home, what are some of the particular issues they need to be aware of related to their kids’ social and spiritual development?
Military families are not immune to the stresses of deployment. There is a growing body of research on the impact of prolonged deployment and trauma-related stress on military families, particularly spouses and children. 3 A recent White House publication reported that there are “approximately 700,000 military spouses and an additional 400,000 spouses of Reserve members. More than 700,000 children have experienced one or more parental deployment. Currently, about 220,000 children have a parent deployed” 4 (italics mine). The cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health diagnoses among spouses. A 2010 study reports an 11 percent increase in outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of 3- to 8-year-old children of military parents and an increase of 18 percent in behavioral disorders and 19 percent in stress disorders when a parent was deployed. 5
We all need to recognize that these families and kids are under additional and unique stressors. In addition to asking the normative developmental questions like, “Do I matter? Where do I belong? Am I socially and relationally safe?” adolescents in the military are also asking “Is my parent safe? When will I see them again? What will they be like once they return? These kinds of questions inevitably alter their social and spiritual development, and we need to become especially mindful of how to respond to them as they navigate this delicate terrain.
How would you advise youth workers and parents whose kids are heading into military service? What can they do beforehand to help prepare them for what they might face spiritually? Similarly, what can we do during their service to support and encourage their faith journeys?
I would suggest both parties think through how they will stay connected, to have an intentional plan of correspondence and communication. I would also suggest that the stateside community own the responsibility of staying connected. In my opinion, it is more difficult for a service member to get in touch with you than it is for you to get in touch with them. So own the task, and make it a priority. It means the world to us when we receive an unexpected phone call, piece of mail, or message on Facebook.
In the same way our country commissions these young men and women for service to our nation, commission these young people as missionaries in the Kingdom of God. For this is their highest calling and their most important mission. Before they leave, determine the appropriate “sending out” ceremony where the service member is surrounded by the community and prayed over.
I would also encourage the service member or the family to get in touch with the nearest chaplain. Once you receive orders, get in touch with the chaplain, and find out what services the Chapel offers or what kinds of churches exist in the area. Chaplains are here to serve and they are a resource in getting you connected to a community of faith.
I also think an individual has to be very realistic about what it is they are going to go see and do. Do not be afraid to discuss the hard questions of military life and service: How will you deal with authority? How will you handle your sexuality? How will you process your loneliness and isolation in healthy ways? If you are asked to kill for our country, how do you think that will affect you? How will you process the potential death of your friends? Who will you lean on for support and encouragement? Having these kinds of conversations on the front-side of service can make a big difference.
When a service member returns home, what are some of the key issues to be aware of in ministry to them as parents or youth workers?
Depending on where this person was deployed, we have to acknowledge that the person now standing in front of us is not the same individual who left home. Military service changes you. Deployments change you. War inevitably changes you. However, we often do not know how or to what extent. We need to create the kind of relational space where service members are allowed to be who they have become.
I love what Henri Nouwen says: “Hospitality … means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” 6 We need to be willing to hear these young people’s stories. We need to engage, to inquire, to listen without judgment, and to welcome them back to a truly “hospitable” home. We may be proud of their service, but I think it is more important to truly understand how they served. Returning service members need to tell their story, and we need to hear the stories they tell.
There seems to be a lot of tenderness in the country toward troops, which is present in many churches. How would you love to see that tenderness put into tangible action in support of those troops?
If you have young men and women leaving your church to enter into military service, I would suggest developing some form of ministry to these individuals. It can be as simple as appointing one person to track their lives and to stay in touch with them. Do something to help re-connect them to your community, to communicate that you and the church haven’t forgotten about them, and that you are grateful for the sacrifices they make. A few tangible suggestions might be:
Develop a theology that goes beyond patriotism.
With the fairly recent announcement of Osama Ben Laden’s death, and with President Obama’s commitment to troop withdrawal, we now have the opportunity to revisit why we are “tender” towards our service members. These monumental events also provide the opportunity to re-examine our theology of justice, war, loving our enemies, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the role of military power in global affairs. I think it would help the Church if we looked to these recent current events as opportunities to go back and revisit both the scriptures and our previously-held assumptions.
Support ministries that reach out to service members:
Perhaps you would consider how you might partner with one of these two organizations:
The Navigators were founded when Dawson Trautman shared his faith with a young Sailor in a US Navy shipyard. To this day the Navigators train missionaries whose primary purpose is to disciple service members. However, there are far too few of them.
Cadence International is one of the few youth ministry organizations that possess contracts with the Department of Defense, allowing them to do youth ministry on military bases. Here in Okinawa, there are 6 youth workers for approximately 35,000 military members and their families.
Utilize the USO
The USO does a lot more than just host celebrity concerts. They will deliver messages. They provide care packages to deploying service members. Here in Okinawa, they will even deliver a large birthday cake to a specific service member for $25. In return, you will get a picture of that service member with the cake…candles lit!
Living overseas for almost a year now, I now have a new found appreciation for good “old-fashioned” mail. As strange as it sounds, checking my mailbox everyday helps me feel normal. For several short minutes I forget I am in the military. I forget what the day held, and I long to hear from people I know. Most times the mailbox is empty, which immediately reminds me how far from home I really am. I would imagine I am not the only one who feels this way. If some of your former students are now serving in the military, please take the time to write them. Send them anything. The simple gesture will remind them that you have not forgotten about them.
Throw a Party for Returning Service Members
Perhaps you have seen a family member waiting in the airport lobby with balloons and flowers and a big sign that reads, “Welcome Home.” Even if I am just passing by in the terminal, these kinds of reunions always warm my heart. Is it possible for you to meet a returning service member at the airport terminal with cheers and hugs? If being at the airport doesn’t work, perhaps plan a “Welcome Home” BBQ/Dinner at the church or at minimum, recognize the return of their presence with you in an upcoming worship service.
Consider becoming an Army, Air Force or Navy Chaplain:
Each branch of the Armed Forces is varied and unique in its approach to chaplaincy. However, what all chaplains have in common is a strong desire to be present for their people and to do it in an exceptionally dynamic environment. To learn more specifically about becoming a Naval Chaplain, see the US Navy Chaplain Corps site.
- According to the report by David J. Strauss and Jennifer L. Purdon, Sexual Assault Prevention, Risk Mitigation, and Response: Applying Best Practices from the Civilian Population to the Marine Corps, 2009. ↩
- Annemarie Randazzo-Matsel and David Strauss, Suicide and Suicide Prevention Literature Review and Applications to the Marine Corps. Lesser P, Peterson K, Reeves J, et al. “The long war and parental combat deployment: effects on military children and at-home spouses,” Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2010; 49(4):310-320), and Mansfield, AJ, Kaufman, JS, Marshall, SW et al. “Deployment and the use of mental health services among U.S. Army wives,” New England Journal of Medicine (2010; 362:101-9). ↩
- Flake EM, Davis BE, Johnson PL, Middleton LS. “The psychosocial effects of deployment on military children,” Journal of Developmental Behavior Pediatrics (2009; 30:271-278). ↩
- “Strengthening Our Military Families: Meeting America’s Commitment.” White House Publication, January, 2011. ↩
- Gregory H. Gorman, Matilda Eide, and Elizabeth Hisle-Gorman. “Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints Pediatrics,” Pediatrics, (2009; 2856 v1). ↩
- Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 71. ↩