When we hear about casualties of war, we tend to think about those who don’t return home. But many in the military do return home with wounds of various types and degree.
For the Rev. Lucy Der-Garabedian, who serves with a wounded warrior unit, helping these men and women has been part of her job for the past two years.
Der-Garabedian, an active duty Army chaplain with 16 years of service, was among the chaplains who recently took advantage of a chance to connect and relax at Montreat Conference Center during the Aug. 6-9 Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel retreat.
“This is called a Warrior Transition Unit and we take them from combat to something else,” she explained about the overall mission of the unit. Der-Garabedian prefers not to name her base to help protect the confidentiality of the soldiers and families in her care. This confidentiality and the trust that goes with it are key for all chaplains to build relationships with their soldiers.
The soldiers that come in for help may have physical limitations due to injuries that will keep them from doing jobs they did before. Sometimes they’ve had head injuries and can’t process thoughts as they once did. Others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional issues and sometimes “self-medicate” or have substance-abuse problems, Der-Garabedian said.
“It’s about healing and transition to something different in the military or something civilian,” she said. “It’s an educational opportunity to find things that suit them.”
Each soldier faces unique challenges. There’s no blanket solution, and Der-Garabedian and her unit work with each individual to address current needs and equip them for the future. She acknowledged that the tools they use might seem unusual but stresses that the focus is on helping the soldiers.
For one young man, it was giving him a birthday dinner — something he’d never had before — to help connect him to others and deal with issues of depression and substance abuse. For another family, Native American drumming proved therapeutic.
Der-Garabedian’s job frequently involves not just soldiers but their families as well. For those who will have permanent physical or mental limitations, the military will bring in and house spouses, parents or even entire families and teach them to be non-medical assistants to take care of their loved ones.
“The families need to learn to tend them,” Der-Garabedian said, adding that the presence of family also makes the healing process easier. “It also gives them an emotional connection with that family member. That’s something they wouldn’t have with a nurse.”
Der-Garabedian’s job requires a constant need to adapt to the changing situations and challenges of the soldiers and families she helps. That flexibility is something she and others in her unit try to pass on to the families they help, many of whom are facing lives quite different from what they knew before.
“What we do is about resiliency and adjusting to the new normal,” she said. “Christ reached out to the marginalized and gave them hope, and that’s what I’m trying to do as well, in whatever form it comes.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.