A local hospital called me early on a Monday morning to visit one of their new patients. All I was told was that this gentleman had been homeless and had served in the current war.
Upon arrival, I was told to go to the psych ward, enter an access code and see the nurses there.
I can confess to a great bit of nervousness. The pastoral hospital visit is already a difficult task; this one seemed even more difficult.
After being admitted to the floor and shown to a visitation room, the nurse explained that the patient was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and had attempted suicide. She then told me to wait while they brought the patient in to visit.
When he came in, I introduced myself and we began one of the most difficult conversations I have had in pastoral ministry.
He told me about returning home from war about a year ago and how, since he returned home, he has been tortured by what he saw in the Middle East.
He shared horrific stories of watching children beheaded, seeing bodies hanging over the street, and violence that was unimaginable to me.
He talked about those he had shot, and confessed even standing over those dead bodies urinating on them and laughing.
In almost a whisper, he said, “Pastor, I see these things in my head all the time. I can’t get rid of the images. They are destroying me.”
Although he could not put the elements together, it became obvious that his attempted suicide was an attempt to rid himself of these thoughts.
This man, my new friend, was in a condition that might be worse than death.
Stuck in these horrible images that he had been forced to see, trapped in his own sins, haunted by memories that no one should own, and lost in that space.
For all purposes he, too, was dead.
He went into the war to pay off debt and fulfill a promise he had made. He returned a man who was walking dead.
It was at that moment I realized an incredible truth that I have missed when protesting the recent war.
Having focused so much attention on the innocent foreign lives being killed, I have neglected to think of the soldiers returning home who, even though they still have a pulse, are also dead.
It’s not fair to blame them. There are all sorts of reasons one joins the services.
Some feel an obligation to their country. Others see this as their only option to higher education. For many, this is their only choice to try and make a better life for themselves.
They are not to blame for this war. I can only blame the powers that sent them there that go by the names of greed, fear, violence and ignorance.
Throughout this war I have prayed for reconciliation, and have struggled with this prayer because I don’t really believe a prayer is a prayer unless we put our feet to resolving it and helping answer it.
Until this visit, I had no answer for how to help the reconciliation process that is so needed.
Perhaps one of the callings of the church today in the ministry of reconciliation after this dreadful war is to help those returning home that have lost their lives.
The powers have wronged them, too, using them for all they could and leaving them with nothing.
Tormented by what they saw, many returning soldiers have little to no resources, are suffering with severe mental illness, and have nowhere to go.
Part of the church’s work toward reconciliation is to these men and women.
To offer shelter. To offer resources as they try to finally begin a new life.
To provide spaces to talk about the things they saw. To provide a place in our community where they can belong and heal.
To say we are going to stand beside them in the journey to wholeness. To hear their stories and offer God’s forgiveness.
To sit in their hospital rooms, offering them your hand and these words, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing.”
There is reconciliation work we can do here. It is not easy, but it is needed; and it is one way we can begin to make peace.
Griff Martin is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La.