Souls at war: What veterans need from the church

Dallas Bozeman

Missionary, Togo, West Africa

  • Culture & society

I tucked the barrel of my rifle behind my knee as I knelt beside him. It’s a common courtesy not to let your weapon fall into a patient’s face. He swatted at my hands as I applied a tourniquet and pulled me down as I tried to cut along the inseam of his pants. When he wasn’t fighting me, he would throw himself forward to look at the mangled void where his left leg used to be.

His amputation seemed like the obvious concern, but our experience had taught us differently. As my teammate reached under the small of his back, his fingers sunk into the exit wounds. If we didn’t stop the hemorrhaging now, he would be dead in the next few minutes. Outweighing him by nearly 100 pounds, I dropped my other knee into his hip. He screamed out in pain, but the pressure would slow the bleeding.

I wanted to tell him why I had to do it, but 16-year-old boys from this part of Afghanistan don’t understand much English. More appropriately, 25-year-old men from Alabama don’t speak much Pashtun. His breathing grew shallower, and the light seemed to leave his eyes as the helicopter landed. It’s a strange thing when a human being transforms into an empty vessel.

We picked up our rucks and made our way back to the stronghold. After dropping our gear, we stole a couple of leftover roast beef sandwiches in the officers’ mess. Tucked away in the dark of our tent, we slid into a couple of scrap wood lounge chairs to enjoy a sandwich and maybe an episode of The Office — still stained with the young man’s blood. The next day we rose up with the sun and did it all over again. And the next day, and the next week, and the next month and the next year.

Dallas Bozeman

Life was like currency. Dying men begged for it, strong men took it and stronger men gave it away. Not everyone who left for Afghanistan came home, and some of those who came home never left Afghanistan. 

On more than one occasion, a pastor has pulled me aside and asked, “What should we do with our veterans? They’re a tough nut to crack. It’s like they’re here, but they just don’t get it.” The tone almost always carries a wave of concern with a strong undercurrent of frustration.

Brothers and sisters, if you would be gracious enough to let me admonish you in love, may I suggest that it’s not that they don’t understand you, it’s that we’ve failed to do the work to understand them.

It’s not a battlefield problem

War is not a desirable thing; nonetheless, there are times when war is necessary. When the worst of fallen humanity violently rears its head, there are times when it has to be met with an exceedingly violent force. World renowned psychologist Edward Tick reminds his readers that troops often act with little choice and on the orders of others, yet when they return home, society refuses to take responsibility for the actions it demanded. Governments and societies are rarely in the business of accepting responsibility. The veteran community’s problem is not a battlefield problem; it’s a social problem.

Related: Confessions of a combat veteran on Memorial Day

In the spring of 2006, U.S. forces killed the most wanted man in Iraq. As much of the nation celebrated, the Pentagon released this statement: “Four people, including a woman and a child, were killed with the terrorist and his spiritual consultant.” That news must not have sat well with the American public. Soon after, a second statement was released that read, “It now appears there was no child among those killed. He cautioned that some facts were still being sorted out but said that three women and three men, including the terrorist, were killed.”

For those of us on the ground who choked back tears as a toddler and two little girls were put in body bags that day, a grievous moral injury had occurred. Our leaders and the American people refused to take responsibility for the actions they demanded. Without a community to share the burden of guilt, we internalized that pain. America had told us, “Please destroy our enemies but spare us the messy details.”

God’s blueprint for healing

Today, many of those men carry years of guilt and the crippling consequences of self-medication. They returned home to an increasingly isolated society and an increasingly isolated church. As researchers and government agencies frantically search for the silver bullet to the post-traumatic stress epidemic among the veteran community, might I suggest that in God’s wisdom, he has already given us a blueprint for healing.

In Numbers 31, as 12,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel returned from battle with Midian, Moses said: “Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood. (Numbers 31:19-20, ESV)

Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle:This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded Moses:only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.(Numbers 31:21-24, ESV)

A group of soldiers

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but if you put soldiers in isolation for a minute — much less a week — they will tell stories. Imagine the dark and tired faces of thousands of soldiers as they gathered around the fires each night. Humor, fear, grief, anger, regret; these are the private conversations that warriors have with another when they’re safe from the blind judgment of society.

Related: Six gauges for your soul in a time of crisis

As the next generation of Hebrew warriors purified themselves outwardly from the stains of battle, through storytelling, they grew aware of their inward need for cleansing.

I’ve had hundreds of conversations with fellow warfighters and found that we will almost instinctually walk ourselves down the path from worldly sorrow to spiritual brokenness. In a deep and almost incomparable way, soldiers have seen the world for what it really is. They need affirmation that they are no more broken than our collective humanity.

“Come into the camp”

This transition is the crucial moment where the tribe, Christ’s church, must meet them with open ears and open hearts. In the wilderness, after the ritual purification and confession had taken place, Moses said, “Come into the camp.”

The nation of Israel welcomed back their warriors with more than fanfare and parade. They welcomed them as a broken community. As a nation at war, they knew what these men had done on their behalf. The physical, mental and spiritual wounds they endured were not the fate of the soldier’s nature, but the fulfillment of the society’s need. They wept together in the shadow of destruction, and they rejoiced together in the light of God’s grace and mercy.

Today, the church in South Sudan is using this model to reintegrate child soldiers back into their tribal communities.

Can I challenge you, church? Be the tribe. Don’t hide from your own flesh. Tell your veterans, “Come into the camp!” As you hear their stories, come underneath them to help shoulder the burden. Where the enemy has sewn seeds of lies, work the soil and plant truth. When they are vulnerable, cover them. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer and consistently point them to the sufficiency of Christ and the hope of his resurrection. Be the authentic Christian described in Isaiah 58:6-8 (ESV):

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”

Dallas Bozeman, Missionary, Togo, West Africa

Dallas Bozeman serves as a church planting coach to Togo, West Africa. He completed four combat tours during 11 years of military service. His notable decorations include the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and two Purple Hearts.

Additional articles by Dallas Bozeman