After American Sniper: Reimaging Returning Home

03/25/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

War is ugly. War is brokenness... I was no scholar or learned Rabbi. I was only a young Marine wrestling with his actions... Am I justified in what I did? Deep down, we all know war is wrong. Everybody's uncomfortable with it. But we do it anyway. So then I think: what the hell is God up to, letting us run around with M-16s?
Benjamin John Peters, Through All the Plain

After American Sniper's box office success, after one more politician posturing about veterans' wellbeing, after one more script for one more bottle of pills, we are no closer to responding to the real toll of war. With plenty of blame to go around, we appear more invested in playing games than bearing our collective responsibility for the cost of our nation's wars. Though we are closer than ever to having the necessary conversations, our attention for such things tends to wane and wander off. Remember Vietnam? Yeah, me neither.

When I served as a chaplain in the VA hospital system, I saw the systemic failures, broken promises and unfinished work that haunted our nation's veterans. They were bearing the struggle in their bodies and in their souls. They were continuing to sacrifice their own wellbeing for their nation, because those of us with the option of turning away and forgetting remained as far from danger--and from them--as possible.

I needed first to engage with the person in front of me, right where they were, whatever they were dealing with, however they were dealing with it. And when the time came, I needed to find language and images that would connect us, a way of acknowledging the experiences that would affirm the dignity of their personhood and that would recognize their strengths and capacity for growth. Our nation's veterans are more than heroes or head-cases.

I came to see our moral identities as houses we inhabit. Each person's house has a particular floor plan. Some houses have lots of windows and skylights. Some have bars on the windows and sophisticated security systems. Each house is built by many hands over many years, with building materials that come from many different religious, political, personal, and cultural sources.

Certain life experiences strain that house, and in some cases, traumas can compromise the entire house and leave it no longer livable. In the aftermath, standing in a house laid flat and exposed to the elements, a person may feel deep sadness and grief, anger and blame, guilt and shame. This describes the situation I sometimes found veterans after their return home.

While the destruction of the house is crisis enough, a larger and most daunting crisis looms in the aftermath. Imagine seeing your house in rubble and then looking up to see other houses unscathed, still providing safety to their tenants. What happens next makes all the difference: some will walk away from the rumble, exiled by the thought they don't deserve to live with a roof over their heads; some sit down in the midst of disrepair and sink into the despair over their calamity; and some, when ready, will begin building a new house.

Three key questions face each house-building project: (1) What does not deserve a place in the new house and should be left aside; (2) What is worth keeping and what new materials are necessary; and (3) Who is needed to participate in the building process.

It is likely that a person's first house was largely built by others - family members, mentors, religious leaders, and teachers. It is also likely that certain necessary upkeep became deferred maintenance and left the house more vulnerable to life's events. Lessons learned at this time may be instructive going forward: What needs ongoing care and upkeep? What needs to be sustained and strengthened to better weather the next storm?

A person building a new house can't to build it alone, so he or she must discern who can contribute the special skills and new materials necessary. But the owner must be architect and interior designer - no one should take over building another person's house for them. If you are religious leader, chaplain or therapist, you may have been asked to build someone's house for them, to give them the answers. A house built by someone other than its owner will not stand long in the face of the next storm.

When we see people as heroes, we don't leave enough space for them to struggle as all people do at times in their lives. When we see people as head-cases, we don't leave enough space for them to demonstrate their strengths, courage, and creativity. Let's begin to view people as architects of their identities, and see the rest of us as potential partners in the maintenance and remodeling processes along the way. This vision of personhood and a community of builders can help us all see how we can be neighbors of veterans and military families as they face building new lives here at home.