Veterans Spiritual (mal)Formation

I was recently contacted by a student veteran currently enrolled in an alma mater of mine. They shared with me the description for a for-credit offering aimed at veterans. Here is the description;

The shared experience of military service may unite veterans, but each has a unique experience. Each veteran will live out their call in a unique way and through a variety of traditions, much like what Paul wrote of the church: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord…(1 CO 12:4,5). The veterans’ spiritual formation group will engage in Christian practices rooted in scripture and prayer together for mutual support and growth.  A special emphasis will be placed on practices that fortify resilience, self-awareness and empathy with others and with self.

At first glance, this course seems like a welcome and exciting opportunity. As a federally protected population, veterans deserve every ounce of support as other underrepresented groups on campus and in employment. Something is usually better than nothing. But a few things in this offering caused me to think twice about supporting it.

I don’t know what to make of the introductory sentences, though maybe there is some context missing that would help me understand the significance of unity/diversity. Emphasizing unity suggests a lack thereof, as though veterans are creating or living in disunity. Is this reflective of veterans in higher education? The use of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians drives home my unease with this course. In the 12th chapter, Paul is speaking to former outsiders, former gentiles. In fact, verses one and two make clear that Paul is worried these former “pagans,” who Paul accuses of being “uninformed” (v.1, NRSV) were inclined to being “led astray to idols.” (v.2)  It is hard for me to visualize what positive, inclusive message this is supposed to relay to and about veterans.

Moving beyond the confusing use of scripture in an odd canonical context does not make me any more confident in the substance of this offering. While I consider mutual support and growth to be of utmost importance, the absence of any mention of non-veterans concerns me because the “civilian-military divide” is especially prevalent in Christian circles. After all, current regular rank faculty were largely exempt from, and therefore interaction with, military service during Vietnam. If intended for veterans only, this gathering is soteriologically incestuous; veterans cannot heal themselves, they need civilians to hear from and contribute to their ongoing salvation. The tendency in military communities to self-isolate hurts individuals as well as the wider ecumenical church insofar as it widens the gap between people alienated not just from one another but from the actions of a nation that claims to be a representative democracy.

Finally, the concluding ‘special emphases,’ like the earlier emphasis on unity, suggests the creator of this group believes veterans in particular lack “resilience, self-awareness, and empathy.” This stands in direct conflict with my experience, compared to students who are often far younger, veterans are especially resilient, self-aware, and empathic. In fact it is these traits that they often display most notably, and to a degree which alienates them from the their younger peers.

~

What this and other services for veterans often lack is a constructive account of personhood. In the Church, there is no coherent account of what it means to be a Christian soldier because the term is loaded with partisan ideology and sloganeering. This is my concern generally with approaches I have experienced and which I know of in passing; as a veteran, society primarily sees me as something to pity for some lack (of resilience, self-awareness, empathy, the list could go on). I have no substance, I am a walking privation, an inexhaustible need. Veterans will never know who and whose they are if they are only consistently seen as being something which is not.

“Formation” like the one described above is very dangerous in its subtle suggestions about what veterans are (and are not), and I encourage my fellow veterans and civilian allies to be wise as serpents in considering how you will be formed. Your time and attention are assets that huge corporations are vying for; don’t squander them…

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