Craig Wiley’s search for purpose after serving in Vietnam ended in the pages of the Bible.
The Christian faith he adopted gave him a new meaning during a period when he felt “like an island and the folks around me didn’t understand where I’d been,” said Wiley, now a colonel and chief chaplain at Fort Gordon.
The faith that rescued Wiley has also played a large role in determining how easily a post-9/11 service member adjusts back to civilian life, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
In a survey of 1,853 veterans, 44 percent of those who served in the 10 years after the terrorist attacks said they had a difficult re-entry. But the analysis also found that a recent veteran who attends religious services at least once a week has a 67 percent chance of having an easy re-entry experience.
“Your faith sustains you,” Wiley said.
His colleagues, majors Eugene Mack and Lonnie Locke, both chaplains, see truth in the survey.
Many service members who leave for a deployment without a strong faith return to the States with a belief in a higher power. It’s the consequence of an occupation that forces them to face their mortality every day, Locke said.
“For some, there’s a lot of bargaining with God” in an intense combat situation, Locke said. They promise that if God delivers them from a situation, they’ll live a better life back home. Locke compares it to a New Year’s resolution, with about half of the service members following through with those commitments.
“That’s a key point in their life. They make the changeover and become very dedicated,” he said.
Back home, the chaplains are visiting the bedsides of troops with serious injuries and hard questions about the nature of God. The chaplains often share Psalms 46:1-2, which promises that God will be a “refuge and a strength” even when “mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
For a service member, that mountain “is the equivalent of losing your eyes, losing your family, losing your limbs (and) being burned from head to toe,” Wiley said.
Some are bitter and angry toward God after their experience in war. They feel guilty or believe that God is punishing them for something they did. The chaplains try to encourage them and provide a different perspective on their circumstances.
“Our charge is to walk them through that so that they don’t just totally discard their faith after what happened to them,” Locke said.