Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why don't UUs do more for our military personnel?

I had a wonderful conversation yesterday with a woman who is committed to UUism but sometimes feels awkward in UU circles because she is a member of a military family and is sensitive to the mixed feelings we UUs tend to have about military actions and personnel.

Recently, I think I told you, a local incident of violence at a festival nearby alerted me to the fact that in this area we have no services for returning vets, particularly for returning vets with disabilities, including PTSD. There are limited services on the mainland and 40 miles north at the Navy Airbase, but they are time-consuming and expensive to get to.

And there is nothing for relatives other than spouses and children. In the case of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we have very young soldiers coming home maimed, permanently disabled, with severe PTSD, and their only personal resource is their parents. These parents have nothing provided for them in the way of resources or services. They have to fend for themselves and are lucky if they know something about the social services system and can find help that way.

We Unitarian Universalists deplore war, we are kind of a semi-peace church, we say we support our troops, but most of us don't do a darned thing to show our support. We have peace vigils and wave banners and speak out against the war, but what do we do to demonstrate our humanitarian concern for our own young people who are victims of war?

Talking with my friend yesterday helped me clarify in my own mind that we UUs need to be welcoming not just to sexual minorities and people of color but also to our military personnel. Our men and women in the armed forces have a huge job to do, protecting our country and coming to the rescue in natural disasters.

They have been mis-assigned, in my opinion, to the Iraq war, but their contract with their country and their employer (the civilian authorities who direct the armed forces) demands that they go where they're sent. If they refuse, out of their misgivings about the rightness of the assignment, they are severely punished. Some can afford to do this, if they have no dependents and a strong sense of self. Most are trapped and whether or not they think what they're assigned to do is right, they have family responsibilities that take priority over their personal ethics.

This is an untenable psychological place to be. People who are in this position have to reinforce their defenses against one side or the other, in order to survive psychically. Our warriors, to survive, must side with the forces that feed their families, even though they may hate what they have to do and recognize that they are being damaged by their work.

It's not easy to take the moral high ground when one's family is in the mix. It's easy for us to blame the military for torture or war or other violence, but we are dependent on our warriors to defend us when danger comes. And they do defend us, regardless of our attitudes toward them.

I've been thinking about this for several weeks now and I got to wondering about what might be offered out there by UU congregations, so I put out an inquiry on the UU ministers' chat line, asking what they were doing in their congregations.

The first time I put it out there, the responses basically mentioned what the VA was doing in various parts of the country. That wasn't what I'd asked, so I put it out again, and though the responses this time were more appropriate, it didn't look like anybody was doing much.

The heartening thing was that it seemed to start a conversation about the misperception of our military folks that UUs hate the military. Since we do nothing to counteract this misperception, it's not surprising that we have this reputation.

I'm hopeful that my congregation's efforts to reach out to the families and vets on the island will help my friend to feel more connected, less marginalized. I think it's a terrible shame that she and her friends and family have felt this separation. And I think we need to do something to change it.


Ms. Theologian said...

It's an intriguing issue in terms of.

I'm really not sure what it means to support the troops in any sense.

Lobbying for extensive mental, job, and financial help post-service would be something I could morally agree with (and raising salaries) as is sending personal supplies over seas. But...often when people talk about "supporting the troops" they are really talking about not questioning the policies of the government.

ms. kitty said...

People on both sides of the issue say they support the troops and many do mean "don't question". Others haven't really clarified what that means.

I think it means coming to terms with the appropriate jobs they are asked to do, giving them adequate protection, care, and treatment, and bringing them home in a timely way. I think supporting the troops means questioning the government's policies in wartime in an effective way (which is not necessarily anti-war protests).

I think we can't stop with that tacit disapproval; we need to get treatment, educational benefits, family support, etc., to our warriors, i.e., put our money where our mouths are.

Thanks for your thoughts, Ms. T.

Ms. Theologian said...

It does seem like people don't put their money where their mouths are in terms of "support". I mean, in our conservative area, "supporting the troops" means voting Republican.....

ms. kitty said...

So it seems to me that UUs and other progessive religious bodies ought to be clarifying the statement and reaching out. I don't think that conservative folks are doing much either. And, according to the parents of our disabled PTSD guy, vets organizations like VFW and AL aren't helping. At least they aren't helping in this geographic area.

Bill Baar said...

In Illinois, each county has a Veterans Assistance Office. It would be my first choice to contact with these kinds of questions.

Here is the website from the State of Wash Dept of VA for PTSD Counseling.

My Church's Social Justice Committee donated to VFW's Unmet needs program when it wanted to do something for service member families. 100% of the donation go to families...VFW eats the admin costs itself.

craftyrene said...

It is a hard line to walk. The vets in our area face a real challenge in that the VA hospital is so far away. As far as I know the services at the bases are now only for the enlisted men not the vets so there is only one location for Vets to get help. The other thing that poses a problem is that the VA hospital has never been real "hip" on helping with mental issues. It is a challenge to provide mental help when you dont want to admit that you are causing permanent damage to our youth. This has not changed much since vietnam. When we lived in San Diego some 20 years ago... the number of homeless men and women with mental illness who were Vietnam vets were 80% of the homeless in San Diego proper!!
How to support the military vets without supporting the policies... speak up.. Talk to your senators and make sure they hear you! Tell the papers the stories about these vets.. Write to our president.. (not that it will do much good but at least you will be on the record) and then speak up to the senators, and congressmen and president and tell them you do not want this war...
If you want to help more then keep in mind that many of our military are single young men and women who cant go home for the holidays. They need families they can spend time with and they need friends. You can call the base and find out organizations that set up these arrangements or you can call the base chaplan. Either way... sometimes the only support you can really show is to reach out and hug someone military!!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Bill and Rene. Both of you offer solid suggestions.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Ms. K,
I recommend to you & others the excellent "Celestial Lands" blog written by our colleague David Pyle. Scroll through the posts to find thought-provoking stuff about UUism and the military. Here's the URL:
My conversations with David, and a couple other seminarians preparing for military chaplaincy, have helped me clarify my own feelings and strongly influenced the Memorial Day sermon I preached this year.

Bill Baar said...

Craftyrene...what is your area?

Please keep in mind one of the stigmas confronting anyone who has deployed --mil or civ in my case-- is that we're nuts.

Getting the label psycho vet can be a real problem looking for a job.

Recall during Vietnam days and VVAW thought the PTSD Dx was a plot by Nixon Admin to label protesting Vets as pyschos...

I just completed my third post-deployment health assesment (third assesment; only one short deployment) over the phone yesterday. It gets a little old after a while.

And speaking of old, I chatted with the interviewer afterwords who said he had just talked with a 71 yo guy going back for his 6th deployment to Iraq....

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, EBS, for noting David's blog. I read it regularly and find it illuminating.

Bill, Rene is here on Whidbey Island and she and I are good friends. We are an expensive ferry ride and 50 miles away from the VA hospital in Seattle.

I can see what you're saying about the PTSD diagnosis being a scary label to put on someone. Thanks for the reminder.

laura said...

::pausing for thought::

I just want you to know I am thinking about this. No answers, no solutions... but you have me thinking deeply about this in a way I hadn't really considered.

We have a several active-duty and retired military members in our UU community, too, and now I feel as though, somehow, we have been giving them short shrift by not ever really *asking* them about their needs and wants. Maybe that's where to start. I know it is similar with my own mental illness - I don't want someone coming in and trying to fix *me* or my situations without asking if I have any needs or wants to fulfill first.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Laura, I appreciate your insight. I agree---helping without asking what people need isn't really helping, most of the time.

Bill Baar said...

Send me an

I can put you in touch with people in your area.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Bill.

2LT David Pyle, CC, USAR said...

I want to thank you for bringing up this question… it is an amazingly important one. I believe that such questions about seeming incongruities between our actions as a faith and our values as a faith can point in ways that we can continue to grow.

Five years ago, I began talking publically about possibly becoming a UU minister and a military chaplain… and I ran head first into this issue. While UU leadership was more than supportive of my pursuing this call to ministry, there were times that members of our congregations sometimes questioned whether or not I was even a UU because I would even consider serving.

What I have seen in these last three years has warmed my heart, and has re-affirmed my belief in our faith’s ability to grow and mature. There has been a sea-change in UU attitudes towards the military, one that began in UU leadership and has been flowing outward ever since. I want to highlight some of the wonderful work that is happening within our faith with regards to how we relate to the military.

In 2007, the UUA created a task force that studied the issue of military chaplaincy, and then completely re-drafted our UUA policies on supporting and endorsing such chaplains. There is now a UUA staff appointed committee (The Committee on Military Ministry) that has responsibility for selecting and supporting our military chaplains. Since this committee has formed, our faith has gone from three chaplains to 13+ Chaplains and Chaplain Candidates.

The Chicago area congregations have taken on support and responsibility for a program that provides Sunday Morning UU worship services for the basic training recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, reaching over 1,000 recruits per year with a message of liberal faith. I serve as the current minister/director of this project.

The UUA is currently in development for a devotional book in Liberal Faith that will be produced and distributed free to service members.

Several UU organizations are working to develop online resources and communications tools for our UU servicemembers, to keep them connected to our faith, to each other, and to our UU ministers serving as Chaplains. There is also development occurring on providing resources to our congregations on how to care for the servicemembers, military members, and families within our congregations. If there are ministers specifically looking to learn more on this, please contact me at Celestial Lands and I will send you some resources.

These are just a few of the ways in which our faith is beginning to address this issue of how we relate to the military. One thing I have learned from my experience of facilitating UU worship for the Basic Training recruits at Great Lakes is that there are certainly Unitarian Universalists serving in the military… they just often either have never heard of our faith… or they believe that we would not accept them because of what they do for a living.

We are beginning to address this need through our denominational structures. The next step is to do the same within our congregations. I recommend two churches whose examples we may follow… the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL… and the UU Church of Norfolk VA. The Norfolk Church has created a UU Military Support Group, and the Evanston Church has intentionally found ways to bring the stories of their veterans into the life of the congregation.

Sorry for the long post… and I agree we have much work to do on how our faith relates to the military… but lets not lose sight of the good beginning we have to work from.

Yours in Faith,


2LT David Pyle
U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain Candidate

ms. kitty said...

David, thanks for your thoughts. I want to let ministers on the chat know that it's there. Our conversation in recent days on the chat has (to me) exhibited a growing awareness that we are not doing much for our military personnel who are serving out of a sense of commitment both to faith and country.

Is it okay to alert them?

2LT David Pyle, CC, USAR said...


If it makes sense for me to write a specific article on this for Celestial Lands that you could then point them to, I would be happy to do that, or you can just point them to my response here.

I think that because I am at the not so pointy end of the stick, I see how much progress has been made in this faith on the issue of how we relate to the military... but that if you did not have the view of being at the not so pointy end you would not see it so much.

So, give me a day or two to write an article that also points people in directions of resources, and get it on the web.

Thanks for pointing out the need for such a thing to me.

Yours in Faith,


ms. kitty said...

Thanks, David. I will do it. Please feel free to communicate via email: kitketcham at

Mile High Pixie said...

Rev. Kit--Well put. I think this post has done a better job of explaining the conundrum of the American soldier today. While the military trains our soldiers to move as one unit and to act first, then think--which is very much needed in life-or-death situations, to be able to act in dangerous instances with instinct--they still indeed are humans who must reflect on their actions later, and for the rest of their lives. I for one believe that we can support that thinking, breathing human being without liking the very particular job they've been sent to do. I look forward to seeing what actions are spurred by your questions.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie, I'm getting more and more interested in it, and the comments and emails I've been getting, as well as David's posts, are very insightful.

2LT David Pyle, CC, USAR said...

Rev. Kit,

I have taken the opportunity your questions brought forth to put together an article at Celestial Lands on what we are as an association doing (that I know of)in the realm of military ministry.

Thank you for the inspiration.

Yours in Faith,


ms. kitty said...

Thanks very much, David.