Stephen Martin served 16 years in the military before becoming an ELCA chaplain — eight in the Air Force and then eight more as an active-duty National Guardsman.
He seemed a natural fit then to take part in a year-long pilot program at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, which called for chaplains from a number of denominations to work with veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, who were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There was a lot of mental illness, a lot of suicidal soldiers,” he shares. “Some of the stories I couldn’t even imagine. Seeing people killed or actually killing people themselves and wondering how God is involved in all of this.”
In November 2012, the ELCA Church Council adopted a social message titled “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness.” The message serves to encourage learning and moral discourse about mental illness and to shape the ELCA as a church that offers hope, prayer and support for people seeking treatment; and support for caregivers and mental health professionals.
The message also acknowledges that 10 years of extended overseas military campaigns have resulted in a large population of combat veterans who are experiencing mental health issues and are prone to suicide. At the same time, “the veterans’ health system is widely deemed inadequate to address the massive mental health needs among our troops,” says the message.
A large part of Stephen’s job was to work alongside the psychiatrists and psychologists who were there to teach the veterans coping techniques. He remembers one particularly powerful sailing trip he took with a group from the hospital on nearby Crystal Lake. “We were out on the lake, and they had all these little rocks. Each one represented something they wanted to put in the past.” The group tossed the stones into the water to symbolically let go of their memories.
It was a powerful moment, Stephen says, for many former soldiers who were struggling with guilt.
“They’re almost seeking forgiveness,” he shares. “We believe that we have a loving, merciful, forgiving God, and he’ll forgive all if we repent with a genuine heart, but your memory is a different thing; we tend to remember the things we said or did. But God promised to forgive us as long as we ask.”
In his time at the hospital, Stephen encountered a number of veterans who had turned to substance abuse to dull their memories. In turn, their lives became even more complicated. “They turned to drugs and had problems with relationships and turned to alcohol and that led to them being incarcerated.”
“It seemed like half of the guys who had been in my group had been incarcerated because of post-traumatic stress disorder,” he continues. Because of this many pleaded with Stephen to go into prison ministry. “They said, ‘Sir, you need to go to our prisons; a lot of our guys are there.’”
It was by the grace of God then that Stephen’s first call after seminary was to serve as chaplain in the Arizona state prison system. “It’s just amazing how God works,” he says. “The community is very similar to being in the military. There are a lot of veterans that are incarcerated, and there are a lot that work there as corrections officers.”
And like the veterans at the hospital, Stephen sees many people every day who “are really doing their best to change and accept responsibility for what they did and trying to move on.”
He’s glad that he can be a part of that process. “I tell them, ‘I can’t do this for you, but I’ll be here with you. I’ll guide you as much as I can, but ultimately it’s between you and God.’”