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God's love heals the soul, military chaplains agree

This is a part 1 of a 2-part series about United Methodist Chaplains and their dedication to their calling.

"When I came back from Iraq, I was changed," he said. "I was going through my own soul wounds."

Moral injury has dominated current discussions about veteran care, he said. "What that looks like is a veteran who has experienced a conflict in their conscience because of something they themselves have done or witnessed."

In dealing with his own wounds, Smith began talking with the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, executive director of JustPeace. JustPeace is a United Methodist center that prepares and assists leaders and faith communities to engage conflict constructively in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation and restoration of community.

Smith recently became coordinator for JustPeace's Soul Care Initiative, which provides churches with a congregational toolkit and other resources to start conversations about veteran care.

"The Soul Care Initiative became a part of JustPeace last July as a result of my own experience," Smith said. "I was diagnosed having PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) a little over three years ago. As I look at my own life, I see that I can provide and make a critical contribution in my community and in my family. Even though I myself am wounded, I still have a role. There are others out there, like myself, who are doing the same.

"The media often labels us as heroes or broken," Smith continued. "One of the reasons I'm doing what I'm doing is to bring awareness to our faith community at large. The Soul Care Initiative is valuable because it introduces to our churches our veteran community and the sacrifices that have been made."

Smith started out as a full-time pastor and a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves before becoming an endorsed chaplain in 1984. He is a clergy member of the Susquehanna Conference.

"What I thought was going to be three years turned into 30 because, every year, an experience happened in my journey as an Army chaplain that confirmed and reaffirmed that was where I was supposed to serve. I loved it immensely."

The Rev. Scott Henry was an Air Force chaplain for 29 years, after also first serving as pastor in a local church. Today, he is director of extension ministry and pastoral care in the Division of Ordained Ministry at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. In that role, he works with chaplains serving in all branches of the armed forces and in other settings.

"God surrounded me with people who helped me make the transition: from pastor to chaplain, he said. One of Henry's favorite things about chaplaincy was how it enabled him to spend time with people in a variety of settings. "I think you get invited into people's lives–as a chaplain–in amazing ways, sacred moments."

A privilege, he said, is spending 'a lot of time as a military chaplain with a lot of young people," he said. "They are forming their first version of their adult identity, and you have a chance to help them develop."

Military chaplains also do a lot of counseling, Henry said. "Sometimes you never see the people again," he said. "Sometimes you don't know if you've made any difference or not, but I believe we do. I believe God uses every one of those encounters to bring hope and help and some sense of meaning."

Emily Snell is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.

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