Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beyond Memorial Day/Embracing Our Veterans

Last year in April the Interfaith Center of the Presidio and others sponsored a day-long series of presentations designed to help religious leaders to learn about the needs of returning veterans and their families, and to help them understand the unique problems they have in successfully reintegrating into their communities.  I had begun blogging about this event, called Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War, and then evidently I forgot the blog.1

Don Frew, who is a member of the ICP Board, and I were among the planners.  We were the only Pagan presence and the only non-Abrahamic presence among the planners.  In attempt to more accurately reflect the religious diversity of this region, I contacted my interfaith colleagues in the Hindu American Foundation and located Srivats Iyer.  Srivats offered a prayer before lunch.  Although Srivats is neither chaplain nor service member, as a pilot he has regularly flown supplies into Iraq.

Don and I were allotted a whopping five minutes to speak on the use of ritual in reintegrating returning veterans into their families and communities.  I read a brief piece, followed by Don's leading us in a brief tree of life meditation as an example of an accessible ritual act that everyone of any religion can do in almost any circumstance to reawaken a sense of connection and interdependence and to reconnect us to our ground of being.  The folks at ICP asked if they could publish my "Ritualizing Returning Home" on their website, where it remains.2

Another year has passed and one of last year's sponsors produced another event, this time co-sponsored by the Interfaith Center of Contra Costa County.  Previously I had expressed my interest in participating in similar events in the future, and, although I was not among the planners of this latest effort, called Embracing Our Veterans: Helping Congregations and Spiritual Communities Respond to Their Needs,3 my contribution of the previous year led the organizers to ask me to expand the talk into a one-hour workshop.

The organizers had assembled an impressive array of speakers and resources.  I arrived after the keynote address; however, I picked up several very useful handouts and spoke with her later.

Keynote speaker the Rev. Charlotte Bear is Regional Trainer and Educator for VITAS Innovative Hospice Care, interfaith chaplain with the United Methodist Church and the Universal Interreligious Order, U.S. Army veteran of the Panama-Grenada-Lebanon conflicts, and recipient of an Army Commendation Medal and a Meritorious Award for serving as the first woman TV news director in combat theaters.

Her handouts included information about: (1) ministry barriers; (2) a comprehensive list of the military community; (3) outline of the process by which war is declared; (4) the service member's "Oath of Enlistment"; (5) "uniformed" military branches and their areas of responsibility; (6) service ranks/rates/grades; (7) who is a veteran?; (8) combat periods at a glance; (9) the veterans' community; veteran populations (from different wars, women, disabled, etc.); (10) California veteran populations by county; (11) VA4 system at a glance; different military generational experiences; (12) current military work and configuration (missions, gays, women in combat, periods of service, etc.); (13) polarizing projections; (14) understanding issues service family members face; (15) major service-connected medical issues; (16) psycho-social-spiritual conditions across all combat eras; (17) military family stressors; (18) military family support; (19) conversation starters; and (20) ministry ideas in the mission field.  You can see what an amazing series of resources this is.

Various agencies had information tables, too, from which I took "Ten Things You Should Know to Help Bring the OIF/OEF Veteran All the Way Home," "10 Things Your Combat Vet Wants You to Know," and an extensive bibliography.

There were two guided conversations during the day, "Building Bridges Between Military and Civilian Cultures" and "Entering into Spiritual Conversation with Veterans."  Panelists were pastors, chaplains, rabbis, and military personnel -- again, all Abrahamic.

Two other workshops took place at the same time as mine.  I was most interested in "Recognizing PTSD and Moral Injuries" and thankfully presenter the Rev. Penny Phillips gave me a copy of her notes.

In seeking resources within the Pagan world for my workshop, I received material from four individuals.
  • Erynn Rowan Laurie, herself a veteran, provided me with two Celtic reconstruction rituals, one, "Warrior Consecration Ritual," for sending a soldier into combat and another, "Warrior's Return Ritual," for welcoming him home.  
  • Graeco-Egyptian reconstructionist Tony Mierzwicki shared material from his presentation "Pagan Warriors Past and Present" at the Claremont Pagan Studies Conference this past January.
  • A phone conversation with Selena Fox inspired the first piece I wrote on Ritualizing Returning Home. 
Photos illustrating my Power Point are from a warrior blessing ritual created veteran David Sassman of Pagan Educational Network and performed at CoG's MerryMeet in Indiana in 2010.

Tony's work provided me with statistics about Pagans in today's military and the general composition of military chaplaincies. For instance, DoD data reveals that of the 2,500 military chaplains currently serving "the nation's corps of chaplains leans heavily toward evangelical Christianity, failing to mirror the military it serves."  And "Even though just 3% of the military's enlisted personnel and officers call themselves Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or some form of evangelical, 33% of military chaplains [who are supposed to serve all religions] are members of one of those groups," according to the Pentagon.  Air Force data reveal that "87% of those seeking to become chaplains are enrolled in evangelical divinity schools."  Estimates of the number of Pagan military personnel and dependents vary from 10,000 to 100,000 (from the Military Pagan Network (1992-2010), Circle Sanctuary and retired U.S> Army Major Michelle Boshears).  Although these data don't directly concern veterans and ritual, knowing them fortified my resolve to continue addressing the needs of Pagans in the military in whatever small ways I can.

When we are confronted with the uniqueness of veterans' experiences, and challenged to help them in their changed states to reintegrate into their families and communities, I wonder what we can offer in the face of these challenges.  I have chosen ritual.

Ritual is something for which I have an enduring interest. Within the Pagan world our rituals are not hidebound and unchangeable.  We often create new rituals and recreate older ones.  So ritual theory, design, techniques, and suggestions are things we can bring to the common table in the world of interfaith.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to contribute something, anything, to this effort, and I hope other opportunities present themselves in the future.


1.  I suspect I was distracted by the mind-blowing experience of having my grandson appear out of nowhere exactly one year ago today.

2. This piece was also published last year on this blog and on the CoG Interfaith blog.

3.  I much prefer the former title, "Beyond Memorial Day: Understanding the Hidden Wounds of War."

4.  In doing genealogical research, I have learned that before the Civil War there was no formal governmental aid for veterans.  The U.S. Sanitary Commission was established to meet that need.  The commission was set up by each state, and one of my forebears, Dr. Harold Havelock Kynett, was one of the people who set up the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the State of Iowa in 1861.