By Linda C. Hoops
Georgia Fisher becomes emotional when talking about her 24-year-old grandson, Michael, who is a Marine sergeant serving in Afghanistan since November.
“He’s already lost one close buddy,” said Fisher, a member of Grace Lutheran Church in Winter Haven, Fla. “This experience has already changed him and all the others who are serving there. How can we support them and their families? Can I be a surrogate mother or grandmother to the soldiers in the reserve unit just down the street? There are so many facets to this.”
Those many facets were the focus of a two-day, first-ever Operation Barnabas Training conference held Feb. 15-16 at Fisher’s church, which is served by the Rev. Jonathan Frusti as pastor and who was a senior Navy chaplain for 26 years.
The more than 80 participants included reserve chaplains, Operation Barnabas district counselors and chapter leaders, and others who have a heart and passion for helping active and returning soldiers and their families.
Operation Barnabas operates under the auspices of the LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces, seeking to build a network of care for the nation’s military members and their families, with a special emphasis on reserve members and families. The ministry is named for Barnabas, Paul’s companion in the Bible. Barnabas, whose name means “son of encouragement,” helped Paul in his missionary journeys.
Featured speaker on the first day of the conference was the Rev. Dr. Steve Hokana, an active-duty chaplain assigned to the U.S. Army’s Department of Pastoral Ministry Training, where he teaches chaplains and chaplain-assistants to prepare for war, war trauma and reintegration. His three presentations focused on the spiritual care of those suffering from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Returning soldiers, he said, “are normal people who go through abnormal events and they’re going to be changed. They’re going to have a distorted global view and it is up to pastoral counselors and others to listen to them, to understand where they are and how they are coping, and always to emphasize Word and Sacrament as part of a ministry of reconciliation.”
Luncheon speaker was Army Col. David W. Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with principal focus on warrior and family support, and as he stated, “an advocate for the 2.2 million members of the Armed Forces.”
“The wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan that include PTSD manifest themselves in front of their families upon their return,” he said. “Bonds on the battlefield are so strong, but then they are ripped apart. Sacred moments on the battlefield are turned into secrets, and secrets are unhealthy. This generation of vets is wired to serve, but when they return, there is nobody to serve with. They say that nobody ‘gets’ them, no one understands them. On average, about 18 veterans take their own lives every day.”
Individuals — especially other veterans — who genuinely care about returning soldiers, he said, can help remove “the stigma, the judgment they encounter, and will create a sense of community and belonging where they will feel understood.”
Chaplain Mark Schreiber, director of LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces, led discussions with the 16 reserve chaplains attending the conference in a separate track. The sessions focused on their relationships with the congregations they serve when they are often gone for extended periods of time for their chaplain duties, how they balance their family lives with their reserve activities, and their role in mobilizing the veterans in their congregations to serve as Operation Barnabas chapter leaders and members.
Other topics included the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and how best to remain faithful to the Gospel in the “new normal” environment in which chaplains operate in the military, the specifics of the doctor of ministry degree program with its military chaplaincy concentration, deployment support, healthcare and Veterans Affairs benefits.
Chaplains, Schreiber said, “are non-combatants, who have to pick up the pieces afterward. To get into the hearts of veterans, who have shed their blood for our country, we need to share the love of Christ who shed His blood for them.”
The Rev. Gregory Walton, president of the Synod’s Florida-Georgia District, told attendees that speaking on behalf of the Synod’s Council of Presidents, “we are behind you 100 percent and we are grateful for Operation Barnabas, which provides a great platform for working with soldiers and their families.”
Barnabas chapter leaders from the LCMS Iowa West, Florida-Georgia and New Jersey Districts shared information with conference participants about forming chapters and activities that seek to support members of the Armed Forces and their families.
Chaplain Mike Moreno, project manager for Operation Barnabas, said there are officially 10 recognized Barnabas chapters and an additional 10 groups that are in the process of starting a chapter. He also has received 15 requests from other groups asking for information. Each of the Synod’s 35 districts has a Barnabas counselor available for assistance.
The Barnabas counselor for Iowa District West is retired Navy Chaplain Michael Wolfram, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Des Moines, Iowa. During the conference, he received the first Operation Barnabas Pro Deo Et Patria award in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the program.
“My goal [for the conference] was to allow those involved with Barnabas to meet together for the first time, to network and share best practices,” said Moreno. “The energy and excitement were tangible. People actually got to see others who have been working in chapters and who have seen success. I suspect there are phone calls and emails between participants even now as they continue to nurture those relationships and reach out to military families across the nation with the love of Christ.”
Operation Barnabas began as a response to a resolution adopted at the 2007 LCMS national convention that encouraged the Synod to develop “intentional and specific ministry plans for reaching out to the specific needs of service members and their families.”
Since then, plans have been developed to care for deploying reserve chaplains, their families and congregations; materials and training workshops have been made available to help congregations reach out to military veterans and their families; and a website was created to provide information for both military families and congregations. Moreno said additional conferences will be held.
“The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is the first national church body that has established a nationwide network of care for reserve military and their families,” he said. “There is no other church body that is behind this work as much as is the Synod. It is due to the support of all LCMS members that we are able to offer such a premier training event.”
Schreiber commented that the event was an opportunity to reinforce the evangelistic mission at the heart of Operation Barnabas.
“The Iraq war is over. Afghanistan will likely run down by 2013. Our military men and women may leave a war zone, but war and war’s trauma is never far from their waking moments.
“Our church,” he added, “is strategically placed to minister to all veterans inside and outside our churches through Operation Barnabas. A sure foundation has been laid. We are praying and working fervently that the shadow of the cross of Christ will cover every veteran and bring them home once again to the waiting arms of our Savior.”
also said he wished to thank the Ministry to the Armed Forces staff — Nancy Rowley, assistant to the director, and Chaplain Eric Erkkinen, assistant director — “without whose valuable expertise the conference would not have been a success.”
For more information about Operation Barnabas, visit www.operationbarnabas.org, contact Moreno at 402-316-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Ministry to the Armed Forces office at 800-433-3954.
Linda C. Hoops is a freelance writer and a member of Lakeside Lutheran Church, Venice, Fla.
Posted March 13, 2012