Clergy reflect on spiritual resiliency at Fort Drum since 9/11
September 7, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- In life's storms, God is often viewed as a last resort, noted Chaplain (Col.) Thomas L. Dudley, Fort Drum installation chaplain. Trouble seems to be one of life's greatest compulsions for turning hearts heavenward.
When a new day dawned Sept. 12, 2001, churches filled with people, and tears streamed down the faces of millions of shocked Americans as they sought sanctuary from the traumatic images of the most deadly act of war on U.S. soil in history.
"Right after 9/11, there was a great outpouring of interest in (God)," the chaplain recalled. "It was a crisis situation."
Dudley said spiritual yearning among Soldiers and Family Members typically comes in waves, but after 9/11, factors like war and multiple deployments piqued considerable interest.
And because Army communities are encouraged to be "resilient" in difficult situations, Soldiers experiencing painful emotions like fear or loss were motivated to call the chaplain when no other resource seemed helpful.
"Resiliency, of course, in my mind, has to do with a spiritual resiliency," Dudley said. "We can be physically resilient … but there is a spiritual component (to resiliency) as well.
"When I am away or deployed somewhere, I know I have people who are praying for me. I have people who care about me. I have a God who cares about me. That gives me a feeling of resilience," he said. "We tell our Soldiers, 'Develop your spiritual muscle.'"
Dudley calls the Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division a "tight bunch" who depend on one another in dangerous situations for extra resiliency.
But all Soldiers who go down range usually return from battle carrying "something," the chaplain said. It's not that they are no longer able to cope, "but something has happened, there's something about just being in that environment a while, (and) you come back a little different," he said.
Rev. Robert J. McCarthy, pastor of Black River United Methodist and a retired Army war veteran, agreed.
"All Soldiers bear the scars of war," he said. "Some are visible, some are not. But they all do."
McCarthy, who served as a combat engineer in Iraq, said Soldiers returning from battle worry about such things as "How will I be seen by my congregation?"
"We really stress in welcoming them back that we've been praying for (them) while they were gone," he said. "We (say), 'Welcome back to us. Thank you for your duty. (We) thank God for your service.'"
The pastor said one of the Soldiers' biggest concerns while they are deployed is that their Families are cared for, especially with practical things, such as getting a driveway cleared of snow in the winter or keeping up with the lawn in the summer.
"It's just so much better for the Soldiers if they know that their friends and neighbors are taking care of (them) -- somebody to let them know that spring will come. Don't worry. You're going to make it," McCarthy explained.
Chaplain (Lt Col.) Daesoo Lee, 3rd Brigade Combat Team rear detachment chaplain, said he believes Soldiers boost their resilience by asking God and others for support.
"We are somehow created weak and vulnerable from our nature, and we need help from each other," Lee said. "Resiliency is a part of humility, and admission of weakness shows courage and creates potential to get better. By asking for help from others, we achieve our goals, dreams and hopes. Without any help from others, we cannot progress or become better than we are now."
Lee should know. As a child growing up in post-war Korea, he lost six siblings to disease and hunger. In his teens, he lost his father to cancer and another brother in an accident.
"Even in my Army career, I was passed over several times for promotions," Lee said. "(But) I feel I have grown from those painful experiences. I wish that they never happened to me, but now I am thankful for what I went through.
"I can understand the pains of others and can better relate with those whom I minister to," he added.
Since 9/11, the demand for chaplaincy services across the Army has jumped. In 2004, officials took a fledgling pre-9/11 Army program called Strong Bonds and provided commanders with direct funding to use it as a tool for instilling individual resiliency in units by building and maintaining strong Families.
The program, which is unit-based and chaplain-led, grew exponentially. More and more, Army leaders believed that strong relationships contributed to the maintenance of a healthy Army and a secure future force.
"The Army changed (after 9/11)," Dudley said. "We're in a pattern where the Soldiers are always (deploying). They come back, and then they go back again. It's hard."
In 2009 alone, more than 160,000 Soldiers and Family Members participated in over 2,600 Strong Bonds events, according to the program's official website. Thousands more have taken place since.
Today, the Strong Bonds Program targets four areas for its resiliency-building efforts: single Soldiers, marriages, Families and deployment cycles. Much of the program's format takes place at offsite retreats designed to maximize relationship training.
Program officials call the retreat a fun and safe "getaway," where participants can discuss the impact of relocations, deployments and military lifestyle stressors.
"This is a chance to get away and (reintegrate)," Dudley said. "(It) was a good Army move."
He noted that young Army couples typically have the same communication troubles as civilian couples. But add to that the stress of a deployed spouse possibly going out into harm's way, and it makes relationships even more difficult.
In addition, he said, a long separation has the potential to cause considerable conflict among Family Members. Dudley gave a young, take-charge Soldier redeploying to Fort Drum as an example.
"He gets back and he starts calling the shots," he explained. "But the wife's been used to calling the shots now for the last year."
During a retreat, Dudley said such a scenario is important for couples to talk out.
"We just try to (reveal) the obvious," he said. "Maybe they don't want to talk about it. But we'll talk about it. And hopefully it will assist them in their reunion."
As Soldiers or Family Members ask for help, chaplains from various denominations and backgrounds offer the same "bread-and-butter" counsel, Dudley said.
"God is available, and He cares about you," he said. "That is what we are about, primarily. There is hope in God."
In addition to the Strong Bonds program, the Main Post Chapel offers religious services, individual and Family counseling, and monthly remembrance ceremonies to honor the lives of fallen Soldiers.
"I wish we didn't have to do them, (but) there's a very important sense of closure (with the ceremonies)," Dudley said.
In recent years, the chapel also developed a strong relationship with and training for local clergy, since many Families live and attend religious services off post. Dudley, who helped spearhead the network with dozens of North Country pastors, said the purpose is to show civilian clergy how they might better minister to the Soldiers in their congregations.
"They serve the same people we do," he said. "We thought it would be a good idea to dialogue with them to see if they needed some support."
By getting to know military clergy, local pastors also gain a good resource and referral system when determining if a Soldier has a personal issue or is struggling with the reintegration process.
McCarthy said Army chaplains offer extremely beneficial training to help off-post clergy better understand military stressors. He said certain conditions, such as PTSD, are not military-specific, since pastors traditionally console anyone dealing with the stressors of traumatic experiences.
He also pointed out that civilian clergy new to the area benefit from the network.
"There's this ad hoc group that they can plug into and the learning curve isn't quite so steep," he said.
Dudley emphasized that continuing to dialogue with all elements of the religious community in the area is a positive measure and mutual support.
"We live in a world where we need each other," he said. "We can't say: 'I'm over here, you're over there.' We serve the same people. We can serve them much better if we collaborate and we're talking among ourselves."
"Pro Deo Et Patria," reads a plaque in chaplain's office at the Main Post Chapel. "For God and country," Dudley said. It's the Army motto for chaplains, stating succinctly what motivates them to do what they do.
Yet chaplains admittedly can only do so much, said Dudley, who will retire in November after 30 years of Army service.
"It's kind of like one beggar telling another beggar where he can get some bread," he said of a chaplain's duty.
Chaplains' work, however, along with the tireless efforts of clergy in the civilian sectors, has helped countless Americans find the peace and solace so many have sought since 9/11.
Communities across the country have not only endured, but also have been made stronger.
McCarthy said although fear possibly drove many in the North Country to fill their local churches, a new strength defines those who remained.
"After 10 years of being a nation at war, particularly for the congregations around Fort Drum who are so intimately involved with the Soldiers and their Families, their faith has strengthened, and it's become more practical," McCarthy said.
"Surely from the 9/11 tragedies, this nation somehow became a united and stronger country than before," Lee added. "That's the way (it is) when life's sufferings and pains are over. We become more resilient from those painful experiences. We become stronger to face other life challenges."
"I would say it is possible for those of us who have experienced 9/11 to have the opportunity to grow (and) become more spiritually resilient by exposing vulnerabilities (like) fear or a sense of invincibility," Dudley concluded.
"(These are things) we might not have seen before, and we (now) came to the understanding that we are in need of spiritual strength."