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My Journey As a Combat Veteran and Interfaith Peacemaker

Retired PCUSA Pastor and Commissioned Interfaith Peacemaker

The 9-11 Attacks Lauched My Interfaith Organizing

After 9-11 people with a middle eastern appearance in Wilmington, Delaware were coming under suspicion, and some were rudely treated.  A member of Hanover Street Presbyterian Church who had grown up in India in a Hindu family, helped me organize a series of vegetarian suppers.  We aimed to create a place of safety and hospitality where people could share their feelings about what was happening in our nation and world.  We collected the email addresses of the supper attenders and created a Google group a called Many Candles One Light.  We continue to use MCOL to announce interfaith events.  In 2011 I wanted to make such interfaith ministry more visible to presbytery, so I sent a letter to the Committee on Ministry, requesting that presbytery commission me as an Interfaith Peacemaker, accountable to presbytery through its Mission Development Unit.  C.O.M. approved the request and presbytery voted unanimously in favor.  This commission validates interfaith ministry and affords me an opportunity to post often in a weekly newsletter called Midweek Musings.

How I Got Started Working With Veterans

I got started in veterans work through my association with local Quakers.  After returning from combat duty in Vietnam–I served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese navy in the Mekong Delta, patrolling rivers and canals in wooden junks– Quaker writings and their practice of silent worship helped me begin a journey of peacemaking.  Now I attend the Wilmington Friends Meeting at Fourth and West Streets roughly every other week, and I’m a member of their Peacemaking Committee.  Two Augusts ago the monthly magazine, Quaker Journal, was dedicated to veterans’ PTSD, and the alarming rate of veteran suicides (about 20 a day).  I was appalled and deeply moved by what I read, so I asked three of my Quaker friends, two who are deeply involved in prison ministry, and the other who is a psychologist, to join me in starting a ministry to help veterans come home.  At first I didn’t know whether Quakers, historically pacifists, would want to get involved.  But they did.  Later, I wanted to test the degree of commitment of the whole meeting, so I asked the Peacemaking Committee to explain what we intended to do, and then pose a query at the next business meeting to ascertain support for it. The Quaker meeting, just like my presbytery, gave this leading of the Spirit their unanimous support.

Forming the Interfaith Veterans Workgroup

profile of soldier wearing helmet, the profile made up of words related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
manifestations of PTSD

At first the group we formed, the Interfaith Veterans’ Workgroup, had just six veterans, all of them Vietnam vets.  A little later we welcomed an Iraq veteran aboard.  We decided from the beginning to recruit not just veterans, but anyone with a commitment to work for the health and safety of veterans.  Currently we have 43 members, about half veterans, and 65+ members in a Facebook group.  Some of our veterans have experienced PTSD, some not. I myself had mild PTSD symptoms shortly after getting back from Vietnam. Fireworks spooked me, and walking in the woods. After a while the hypervigilance passed. But then, four years later, in 1975 when North Vietnamese troops invaded and occupied all of Vietnam, I began having troubing dreams about abandoning my former Vietnamese comrades in arms. I now have a phrase for the pain of heart and mind that I experienced then:  “moral injury.”  Over the last year I have been following web posts on “veterans and PTSD” and “veterans and suicide”. Many posts aim to raise public awareness about the alarming rate of veteran suicide, but very few acknowledge the importance of moral injury, which some researchers believe is a key factor in some veterans’ deep depression.

Moral Injury and Veteran Suicide

I have yet to find scientific research that establishes a strong correlation between moral injury and veteran suicide, but a growing number of authors are making that connection.  It seems very likely to me that moral injury is a very significant causal factor, so IVW is concentrating on moral injury research and treatment strategies, while also working on reducing PTSD symptoms.  In truth, PTSD and moral injury are intermixed, and helpers can’t work effectively on healing moral injury without calming the nervous system.
When IVW started we recognized that veterans coming home miss the camaraderie and strong sense of purpose which they found in the military, so we set about to involve veterans in volunteer projects to compensate somewhat for that loss.  We worked with a Philadelphia mural painter, Eric Okdeh, to design and paint a mural portraying the challenges of returning veterans. You will find this on the north side of a building recently renovated to house homeless vets, at 901 Washington Street in Wilmington.  We also began to volunteer for an inner city project organized by Delaware Interfaith Power and Light called “Windows of Hope”, building and installing inexpensive interior storm windows in homes to help residents save on heating bills.

Thinking About Treatment Strategies for PTSD and Moral Injury

As IVW grew we noticed that many of our new members possessed professional skills or at least significant experience which would allow us to treat veterans with PTSD and moral injury.  For instance, we have a member with high credentials in Reike, another in Healing Touch, another in yoga, two in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction; and our most recent member is one of the current Twin Poets Laureate of Delaware. He wants to start a writing group for returning veterans.  So, we are gaining confidence that we can do more than just organize volunteer work teams to assist local not-for-profits.  We have a treatment capability.  We recognize, though, that we need to move cautiously in this direction, seeking professional supervision.  We don’t want to mis-treat anyone, and we also want to take care of the caretakers.

A Group Strategy:  AVP

In my opinion the most interesting treatment strategy we’ve been thinking about involves A.V.P., the Alternatives to Violence Project.  AVP is a 2 1/2 day, lively, interactive workshop designed by Quakers.  It was launched in 1975 at the request of older inmates in a prison erupting with violence.  They couldn’t control the angry younger inmates, so they called on Quakers, who had been working with them steadily, to devise a curriculum that would train inmates to behave non-violently.  AVP was born.  It has been refined and has spread to many, many prisons and has been exported to 119 countries. (See AVP reduces anger in prison populations, and reduces recidivism.  It now operates also in schools and neighborhoods where violence is a concern.
For two years I have been volunteering in a support group for citizens returning from prison, called New Beginnings-Next Step. I began to notice that some of the emotional challenges which returning prisoners face are similar to those of returning veterans, such as anger control, and maintaining close personal relationships.  I wondered whether anyone had tried AVP as a group treatment strategy for veterans.  I Googled and found nothing, so I called the national AVP office and asked. They said, no, nobody has used AVP with veterans in general, only with incarcerated veterans.  It’s working great for them, they said, and we think this idea is terrific!  So, I’m currently training myself as an AVP facilitator, and I aim to train other vets to get trained.  As I see it, by facilitating AVP groups veterans will receive inner healing themselves, and by taking it to communities troubled by violence they will promote healing there too.  It’s a win-win strategy.

A Healing Role for Communities of Faith

How might churches fit into a treatment plan for moral injury?  Well, because America is the most religiously diverse nation on earth, and because faith communiites have a lot to offer in the way of healing the deep self, I’m convinced that this work has to be done in an interfaith way.  IVW has established its permanent meeting place in the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, and the Session there has given us permission to use a small chapel for interfaith events.  We can take down and put up whatever visual symbols are appropriate to the spiritual needs of those gathered.  That’s a big step in trust and keeping open minds!
Another church in our presbytery, First Presbyterian Church of Milford, has started a Bible study group for veterans led by a veteran, Bill Cullen, and Elder, Judy Adams.  Other than those two churches, though, there hasn’t been any corporate involvement, but quite a number of New Castle Presbytery folk have joined IVW’s new Facebook group.  We have a huge educational task to accomplish before we can get more communities of faith involved:  We have to teach people what moral injury is and why it’s important to reducing veteran suicide.
Here are some starters:
  • On February 4th from 9 am to 11 am the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew at 719 N. Shipley Street in Wilmington is holding a forum about AVP. Here’s a chance to learn about this very effective program to promote a culture of peace.



  1. isheta gupta smith isheta gupta smith

    Thanks and applause Tom.

    • Thanks for your leadership, Isheta, during those early interfaith suppers.

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