veteran therapy
Artists for the Humanities art therapist Jean Harder works with Korean War veteran Don Schneider in November 2011.  Photo courtesy of Tim Mayer

Many soldiers returning from combat duty never tell anyone what they experienced in their respective wars. For some, the silence lasts for years, decades or a lifetime.

When they are ready to be heard, veterans may seek out programs — not necessarily traditional psychotherapy — where someone will listen. Here are three outreaches in Catholic settings where veterans can tell their stories.

We Honor Veterans

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in Alexandria, Va., in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs, partners with hospices in the United States in the We Honor Veterans programs. The focus is on improving care by ensuring that veterans receive the services they are eligible for, and in teaching respectful inquiry, compassionate listening and grateful acknowledgement to dying veterans.

“No. 1 is just honoring them for all the work they have done, thanking them and allowing them to talk about it,” said Ruth Southards, a registered nurse at St. Anthony’s/de Greeff Hospice House in St. Louis, who is the clinical manager of hospice patients in their homes.

St. Anthony’s is one of more than 19 members of the Catholic Health Association of the United States that partner with We Honor Veterans. Staff members are trained to identify those who are veterans and to encourage them to talk about their service.

“We have a Life Review program for videotaping their stories and we put it on a DVD for the family to hold onto,” Southards said. “It’s emotionally fulfilling for veterans to share their stories. A lot of times it’s a stress releaser for them to finally be able to talk about it. For those on the receiving end, it’s good to have this knowledge of what happened in our history.”

Welcome Home

Sheila Laughton understands veterans. She is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a Gulf War veteran, her husband was on active duty and in the Air Force Reserves, and their son is on active duty. She also has a master’s degree in counseling and theology and a master’s certificate in spiritual direction.

At the Welcome Home program at the Loyola Spirituality Center in St. Paul, Minn., Laughton provides a free service for veterans, service members and their families.

Laughton is a spiritual director, not a therapist, although her background in counseling can allow her to “switch hats,” she said, if she needs to.

“In psychotherapy, the relationship is with the client and therapist working together to create a solution to a problem,” she said. “In spiritual direction, the client’s relationship is with God or the Holy Spirit, or for some people, their higher power. In spiritual direction, there is an underlying belief that ‘between God and me, we can work things out.’ It’s more about healing and growth, rather than fixing a problem. It’s sort of like looking at God looking at me and smiling. I am sitting there as a facilitator.”

She has seen veterans from many eras ­­— World War II, Vietnam and Iraq.

“World War II veterans are mainly concerned about end-of-life issues, like forgiveness, what am I leaving in my legacy, what have I been, what have I done?” she told Our Sunday Visitor.

Many soldiers have to work through all the death they have seen — or caused — in combat.

“You are not fighting so much for a great cause as you are fighting for the people around you,” Laughton said. “And then you think ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but a better translation would be ‘thou shalt not murder.’ What’s important is that if someone is firing at you, it’s not wrong to fire back. So yes, there are moral injuries. If they did their job properly, innocent civilians could be killed. If they did their jobs improperly, then their comrades could be killed.”

Spiritual direction can soften their hearts and allow themselves to be held by God. It’s a chance to strengthen or return to their faith or to be assured of God’s love, she said.

“This has given me the opportunity to give back to others and to see God in everyone,” Laughton said. “It’s like a gift from God to see people as God sees them, in their vulnerability. It helps me to be less judgmental and to really appreciate all the beauty that there is in people.”

Return and Recovery

The Korean War veteran started his healing by drawing a patch from his unit in the 25th Infantry. Months later in the Return and Recovery Program for Military Veterans at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in DePere, Wis., he added the names of 11 squad members who didn’t survive.

Through that act, he was able to heal 60 years of pain over the loss and the guilt for being the sole survivor of a battle. His nightmares subsided, and he tracked down and spoke with one soldier’s family who’d had no closure except to receive his dog tags.

“I am amazed at how significant this program has been, how the veterans can reveal themselves and something they carry within themselves,” said George Kamps, a social worker with the program. “It gives them power over memories or experiences that [internally] have been very harshly judgmental on them.”

The Return and Recovery Program is part of Artists for The Humanities, a program founded in 2009 by Tim Mayer. Mayer was an artist who felt that he “was being called to serve God.” His involvement with veterans began with his Fallen Soldiers Project in which he painted portraits of U.S. military personnel.

Kamps, who served on a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Vietnam, has a master’s degree in social work and became a counselor and in 1983. He began a group for Vietnam War veterans. A mutual friend introduced him to Mayer.

More than 900 veterans of all ages have been served around the state, and Mayer wants to expand Return and Recovery around the country.

The free program encourages veterans to draw pictures that they share with groups that often include family members.

“The images may be something related to their trauma, done on their terms,” Mayer said. “It may be a window for the therapist into a world that they have kept secret, something that they don’t want to talk about. Sometimes they witnessed something so terrifying that there might not be words to describe it.”

There are biological explanations for how drawing causes one side of the brain to affect another in a way that people can have breakthroughs in facing and healing traumatic memories. Then many times, recovery leads to connecting or reconnecting with God.

“Their spiritual wounds are significant,” Kamps said. “As a Catholic, I know how important spiritual health is, and we try to open that door.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.