Richard, “Rich” Watson currently resides in Hope Mills, North Carolina, just near Fort Bragg. He served in the United States Air Force for 20 years, and has an education in psychology, with other degrees in education and social sciences. He has been happily married for over 22 years and has 4 amazing children. Since his retirement from the military, he works for a veteran service organization, in their mental health department. He and his team provide resiliency-based retreats for individuals, couples, and families. He joined the church in 1996 and has had the pleasure of serving in varying leadership roles, some of them multiple times. (One of the “benefits” of moving so often during his military career.) These include ward mission leader, elders quorum president, high priest group leader, young mens presidency, branch president, bishopric, high council, and more. Rich also has shared his insights in a Leading Saints Podcast, “Ministering to Veterans in Your Ward.”
One thing which became apparent to me upon retirement from the military is that I was missing a sense of belonging. This was recently discussed by Elder Christofferson in the October 2022 conference in a talk titled “The Doctrine of Belonging.” However, when it pertains to veterans, there are other factors that I feel leaders in the Church should consider.
As we lead in our wards and we see veterans who are struggling to fit in, it could be because they don’t feel they fit in—not just at church, but anywhere in society. And yet, in their heart of hearts they want nothing more than to be a part of it all. This topic is addressed in an excellent TED Talk from 2016 by Sebastian Junger titled “Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war.” I feel that talk should be heard by anyone who is wanting to help veterans in their journey home.
In that talk he references this statistic: for those who have served in the US military, roughly ten percent were in combat. However, around 50 percent have filed for PTSD compensation. This means that approximately 40 percent of veterans were not necessarily traumatized by combat rather they come home only to discover they are alarmingly alienated and depressed.
Saints Are Not Immune
Members of the church are not immune to this statistic. After being out of the military for over 7 years, I have yet to feel as connected to anyone as with the individuals I served with in a deployed environment. The deepest connections I experienced were with the members of the Church I deployed with. Those who held sacrament meetings with me in a tent in the middle of Afghanistan, those who gave blessings with me to dying men and women in Iraq, those who cried with me when members would not show up to church on Sunday only to find out they were killed the past week.
For veterans, it is often difficult to find that sense of belonging in the church, which is ironically the same thing most members crave. While this deployed connection may never be fully duplicated veterans are searching for some semblance of it.
A Sense of Purpose
Most have heard of the staggering number of 22 veterans a day who die by suicide. While this is linked to many mitigating factors, it has been shown that those veterans who have a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging are significantly more well-adjusted. How can we, as church leaders, help in this? What can we do to help our veteran population feel like they belong? When thinking of how to connect with the veterans in our wards, there are some things the Church is doing, although it isn’t always found everywhere. Things like active ministering, elders quorum socials, Relief Society socials, ward get-togethers, service projects, and more. Additionally, the Church website has a litany of resources focused on veterans.
Actions of Support
Outside of those previously mentioned, there are a few things that leaders can start doing right away to support an easier transition for veterans to feel more at home.
- Love as Christ Did – While this one seems simple enough, it is often the hardest to do. When a veteran is struggling to fit into a ward, it is easy to pass it off. However, if we were to look at them through the eyes of Christ and see the internal struggle they are having, the outpouring of love toward them would be monumental. Instead of seeing someone who is perhaps a bit reluctant to connect, we would see someone who is longing to connect but can’t seem to figure out how. Instead of seeing someone who sits in the foyer during sacrament meetings, we would see someone who is still at church despite their fears and anxieties about being in a crowd. Instead of seeing the individual who doesn’t speak up, we would see someone that has a wealth of experience that if tapped into could help our wards excel in ways never imagined.
- Get to Truly Know Them – This can help in connecting with veterans more than anything else we can do. As leaders, we all strive to get to know those in our stewardship. However, often with everything else on our plates, that goes by the wayside. In the case of a veteran who is struggling to belong, not getting to know them and connecting with them can be detrimental. We can learn their story, not necessarily about combat or PTSD but learn all we can about them. As we do this, we may find insight as to the best way to make them feel like the ward is where they belong.
- Seek Ways to Be Mindful in Callings – As we better know our veteran members, we can take their unique needs into consideration when we extend callings. During my initial battle with PTSD, I was assigned a calling as High Priest Group leader. I shouldn’t have accepted the calling but did so because I thought that is what we are supposed to do. About a year later during one of my scheduled PPIs with the bishop, I broke down. I told him all my struggles and asked to be released. I was devastated in asking but relieved for finally speaking up. Two weeks later I was released, and the bishop met with me and asked what I felt I could do. He did so knowing that I needed to be involved to help fulfill my sense of purpose and keep me connected. I am an educator at heart so I asked if I could teach in some way. Soon enough I was given a calling teaching youth, something I fell in love with and still try to do today. What that loving bishop did was utilize information to directly influence inspiration. He understood my needs and used that to see where I could best serve.
When leaders do this, we allow opportunities for connection and a sense of belonging that may not exist when someone is just placed in a calling.
Things that leaders Should Avoid
Many well-meaning leaders may move forward with “standard” activities and discussions that are beneficial In typical situations. However, veterans returning home have most often not been in typical situations. Here are a few suggestions to help sensitize leaders to the unique needs of veterans.
- Stop Prescribing Spiritual Discipline – When we, as leaders, encounter veterans who are struggling in their faith or striving to belong, one of the worst things we can do is give them a spiritual prescription. Meaning, adding more prayers, attending church more, and going to the temple more. Each of these has merit, and if we, as their leader, know the individual, then these may be exactly what is needed. The suggestion is that if we know the veteran, then we can allow them to “describe before we prescribe.” Before we give them an already laid out solution, we could best serve them by hearing them out and allowing them to explain to us what is going on in their lives, why they are struggling, what they need, and more. Once we understand this, we will be able to better decide what help is legitimately needed.
- Recognize the Challenges of Church Attendance – As leaders, we often try to answer things by simply saying, “Come to church.” Here is an all-too-common situation: an individual or veteran who is struggling finally comes back to church. On this first visit back they see young men rushing to arrange the sacrament, a talk that is not fully prepared, lessons that someone forgot about, and more. The positive church experience and the overwhelming spirit that can be felt are missed. For veterans struggling with PTSD and anxiety, this can be devastating and cause a sense of complete uneasiness, driving them further away from belonging. It would benefit leaders to get to know these individuals where they are and where they are most comfortable and understand it may not be in the chapel on Sunday.
- Don’t Stress About Conformity – Some of the veterans we may have in our wards may likely have a beard (my bride loves mine), have tattoos (got mine in 1995), use foul language (I am working on that), laugh at inappropriate jokes (I mean, they are funny), and many more scenarios that are often deemed as inappropriate for church. In most wards and branches this has been changing over the last several years, however, there are places where it is still prevalent. If we see an individual judging a veteran (or any member for that matter) for any of these, we need to be the leader we were called to be and stop it.
Connecting With Christ – Our Ultimate Goal for All Members
As church leaders, our call towards helping veterans is no different than our call to help anyone else. There may be some differing nuances, but it is relatively simple and revolves around helping them connect with God, building relationships with them, and loving them. While these three are not all-encompassing, they can and will help us as leaders better connect with our veteran population and provide them with a clearer path towards belonging and ultimately towards the goal of connecting with Christ.