The war at home: Congregations may play important role for combat veterans

About half of U.S. worshipers say they pray for world peace or an end to war at least a few times a week.

And when it comes to the war in Iraq or other U.S. actions against terrorism, many people in the pews are ambivalent.

Thirty-five percent say they approve of such action, while 29 percent are opposed. Many people, 36 percent, reported mixed feelings, according to a random sample of 846 worshipers as part of the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

What is becoming clearer, however, is the value religion can have in helping soldiers cope with their experiences.

An analysis of two studies of World War II veterans found soldiers were likely to pray more as combat became more frightening and, some 50 years later, veterans who had the most negative experiences in heavy fighting were more likely to be religiously active.  Researchers Brian Wansink from Cornell University and Craig Wansink from Virginia Wesleyan College reported the findings on combat intensity and religious behavior in a recent issue of the Journal of Religion and Health.

In the first study, based on U.S. Army research data from infantrymen in the Pacific in 1944, the Wansinks found that soldiers increasingly turned to prayer as combat fears heightened.

Barely more than four in 10 respondents said they found motivation through prayer when the battle became less frightening or never was frightening. However, 72 percent of the soldiers said they found motivation through prayer when the battle became more frightening or was frightening all the time and they had high levels of fear.

An analysis of the second study, a random sample of World War II veterans conducted in 2000, indicated that soldiers who had more negative experiences  in combat during the war were more likely to be active in congregations.

For veterans with positive military experiences, the heavier the combat they experienced, the less frequently they attended church. But those who said their military experience was negative attended church more frequently the more they had experienced heavy combat.  Similarly, in comparison with veterans who did not experience combat, heavy combat was associated with a 10 percent increase in church membership for those who claimed their war experience was negative, but an 8 percent decrease for those who claimed it was positive, the Wansinks reported.

One takeway, according to the Wansinks, is the need to recognize the spiritual needs of active-duty military and combat veterans.

“Religious participation—such as joining or attending a church—may help combat veterans who have had a negative military experience better deal with the aftermath of combat in important spiritual or social ways,” they write. “Encouraging such participation might be especially important for combatants who consider their military experience as having been negative.”

Congregations have not always been at their best in dealing with issues of religion and mental health. Yet research has indicated that belief in a loving God, along with the social support of being part of a congregation whose members care for one another, leads to positive physical and mental health outcomes, including lower rates of depression and anxiety and greater overall happiness.

Military men and women have made and continue to make great sacrifices. An important service worshipers can do in return is to be welcoming, caring communities for veterans and their families.