July 4th, 2015, marks my ninth “rebirthday” -- the anniversary of my baptism, which triggered a chain of events that culminated in my honorable discharge from the Army.
My Christian conversion followed in the wake of my 2004 combat deployment as an artilleryman, embedded in an infantry platoon as we made our way through Iraq.
As a soldier, student veteran and veteran professor -- I now teach in the philosophy and religion department at Methodist University, near Fort Bragg, North Carolina -- I often get emails from colleagues soliciting my advice. They need help responding to military-related concerns that arise in their classrooms or offices in their interactions with student veterans.
The frequency of requests makes me think there are few veteran faculty on staff at Christian colleges -- possibly stemming from the draft exemptions in place for seminarians and clergy during the generation that’s most represented in current tenure-level positions.
It’s no small issue. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than one million military veterans and their families are taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to attend college.
Especially in the twilight of two major conflicts in the Middle East, it is critical to identify faculty who have shared such life-altering military experiences, to whom student veterans can turn.
I have personal experience with this. As a veteran of the “global war on terrorism” (GWOT), I experience Sept. 11 each year as a day of profound significance. I remember one anniversary well -- how frustratingly mundane it was for every student and professor I encountered that day, many of whom expected me to engage in basic small talk. It was a normal day to them.
The only person who knew the right question to ask was another student veteran. “You OK, brother?” he said.
As soon as the words left his mouth, I felt the muscles in my back and neck relax. Somebody understood me, and not only understood but took the initiative to reach out.
Student veterans should be supported in identifying faculty allies to mentor them along the way in higher education, to ease the transition from soldier to student and beyond.
Faculty members who don’t have combat experience can understand war only in the abstract or by relying on the experience of those who have been to war. I suspect that the reason colleagues have turned to me for advice is their concern that their understanding or theological interpretation of war or the military might be inadequate. They know that there’s something they don’t know, and they care enough about their students to want to improve their teaching and engagement with those whom they do not fully understand.
After all, Christian educators, ordained or not, have a responsibility for more than merely a student’s mind; they must also attend to a student’s spirit.
War, different from other traumatizing events in its severity and scope, leaves a mark upon those who have lived through it. That mark determines the way they look at the world, affects how they interact with and trust other people, informs how they read Scripture and receive the sacraments.
Rather than ignoring these differences, the church should mine them for what is of value for all Christians.
In light of this, I offer some advice for professors who do not have a history of military or combat experience but find themselves teaching students who do.
First, sympathize with them as you would any conversation partner. The knee-jerk reaction of correcting someone’s theology to fit your own works against you. Your job as a professor is to teach students to think, not to create copies of yourself. And veterans will know things you don’t know, such as the complex reality of war and what we can learn from it.
More importantly, it is possible that your veteran students carry some form of combat stress, whatever name you might give it. PTSD, for example, afflicts up to 20 percent of GWOT veterans. Many also suffer from “moral injury,” the inner conflict caused by acts of serious transgression against core ethical and moral beliefs.
Sympathy will enable you to hear what is really going on, to understand what is funding the convictions that they have held through the fires of hell -- and that have held them.
It is not unimaginable that your teaching is challenging these beliefs, and the alternative, quite frankly, is frightening. This is not to discourage you but rather to remind you to be keenly aware of the significance of theology taught well.
The second piece of advice I would give is to be honest and expect honesty in return. You don’t serve anyone by avoiding difficult issues, and certainly not if you are teaching at a Christian college, where death and hell constitute parts of our core beliefs.
Worse, it can be insulting to those who have endured the difficulties of military training and service for fellow Christians to avoid important subjects because feathers might be ruffled.
The imprecatory psalms, prophetic literature and Christ’s passion all make clear that the memories of dismembered bodies or bloodied infants one might encounter in war are theologically significant and should not be dismissed out of hand. In fact, the rest of the church could stand to think more critically about how the profane helps us comprehend the sacred all the more fully.
Part of being honest with students will be to hear and reflect on subjects or ideas they bring up that seem obscene. To be sure, military speech is often peppered with obscenities. If veterans’ discussions with you include offensive subject matter or language, consider taking that as a compliment, since it strongly suggests that they trust you. Or that they would like to.
Furthermore, take it as a reminder that the real world of the now-not-yet kingdom includes obscenity, and that denying this by policing our words in the way we Christians tend to do is as ineffective as refraining to speak Lord Voldemort’s name at Hogwarts, inviting disaster by cultivating unpreparedness.
National holidays provide Christians an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the nation within which we minister. Nearly a decade of ministry in and with military communities has left me with the distinct impression that dialogue concerning them is riven with false binaries.
For some, the phrase “Christian soldier” is redundant; for others, the two words are mutually exclusive. The reality is much more complex, and the story of Christian soldiers is one that the Fourth of July compels us to explore much more deeply.
The church needs a robustly martial hermeneutic if we are to have anything to say to the many classrooms and congregations that include or care for veterans. Seminaries, as an intersection between faith and knowledge, are a wonderful place to begin telling their stories with the beauty and tragedy combat comprises. It begins with you.