06/14/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

A Chaplain's Advice on How to Be There for Our Troops

When I ran the Marine Corp Marathon in 2010, I raised money for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a group that helps the families of soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars deal with the trauma of their loss.

I proudly wore my TAPS shirt during the marathon. At around mile 14 (a cruel mile, when all hope of finishing seems gone) I happened to run on pace with another marathoner whose shirt indicated that he was supporting TAPS as well. After a while he pulled ahead and only then did I see on the back of his shirt a photograph of a young man with the heading: "Running In Memory of My Brother."

The image of his brother had a visceral affect on me as I considered the vast difference of his experience and my own. Like most Americans, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were very present to me politically, but distant personally.

Unless you have a family member who is in the service, or live in a community near a base, it is all too easy to ignore the human cost and trauma of war. While we can all feel good watching the videos of homecomings of soldiers surprising their families, the truth is that many service men and women have been through multiple deployments in intensely stressful situations and their homecomings are often difficult as they carry the experience of service back into civilian life.

As the wars draw down and more service members re-enter into society, all of us should take part in an America-wide effort to welcome home our soldiers, support those who are still out in the field, and honor the lives and families of those who have died.

While the government must fulfill its promise to the vets and families of vets, the responsibility does not rest with Veterans Administration alone. All of us have a role to play.

In order to get some advice on what civilians might do for soldiers and their families, I recently spoke to Captain Scott Kennaugh who serves as one of the chaplains at Arlington National Cemetery. Chaplain Kennaugh is one of the 3000 chaplains who offer spiritual and emotional support to our troops and one of 30 from the different branches of service who give final honors at Arlington Cemetery.

How did you become a chaplain in the Army?

After serving a time as a volunteer chaplain for the Sheriff's department in my hometown, the Lord opened the door for me to come on active duty in the Army in 2006. I served at Fort Bragg and had two deployments to Afghanistan before I came to Arlington Cemetery last summer.

Tell me about a particular time out in the field in Afghanistan when you had to offer spiritual support to the troops?

A truck bomb attacked one of our bases and I was part of the response team to help dig through the rubble to help recover a couple of missing soldiers. We met with the troops to talk through their experience and try to help put it into context and address the blow of such a traumatic event.

Later I followed up with some of those soldiers. The attack was at month 14 of a 15-month deployment, so we had all been together for a long time. One of the things that impress me about the soldiers is that they keep tabs on each other. Sometimes they talk to the chaplain, but their first line of defense is each other. They notice when a soldier isn't taking a loss well, that he isn't the same guy as he was before. Those kinds of events have a way of changing people. And so they might ask me to talk to the soldier.

Sometimes the best strategy is just listen and help them talk and through the situation. The soldier might be struggling with the question of what does it mean that we are so close to going home and these guys have died. Or a sense of guilt: Should I, could I have done more to prevent this from happening?

So, I would often just be a sounding board, a listening ear. As chaplains we have the aspect of confidentiality that every one respects. And that is part of my building trust with them, is to prove to them that they can tell me what is going on. And I will help them get the support they need. I'll keep their secrets for them.

I am the person to listen to them, and not tell them what the right answer is supposed to be or tell them what to think, or how to feel. Especially when guys were killed.

If someone asks you why did God let this happen -- what do you say?

God must have a perspective on this that doesn't necessarily make sense to us right now. Sometimes we get the answer later; sometimes we don't get the answer. It's always a tough one. I try to help them put it in the context of faith and hope, and point them to scriptures that reaffirm and remind them of their faith and that it is OK to struggle through these issues.

You can get into all kinds of theology of freewill and God's sovereignty, but down on the ground it is more about what do I do now? How do I go on?

So, on the one hand pointing them towards spiritual resources but then also linking them in with communities that will support them. Like through the Army transition affairs officers, or T.A.P.S. or Gold Star Families. Try to link these families together who have experience that is foreign to most of the families in the country who have never experienced this.

To link these families who have lost soldiers together with others who have walked through that valley who can tell them about how they dealt with losing a loved one.

What do you think is the tangible way that civilians can be supportive of families who are serving in the military now, or who have lost someone?

Just get to know them. Just break the ice as a normal family in your community.

For instance, one of the other families in the school where my boys are had their dad deploy the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

So we were going to do a cookout, and we ended up inviting them over for the cook out since their dad was gone so our boys could play together and spend time together to help fill that gap.

It is important to be intentional about finding out who those families are who have members deployed or who have lost loved ones so you can reach out, and not avoid them, or pretend they don't exist because you're not sure what to say or what to do.

What can we do to help people whose loved ones have died in Iraq or Afghanistan?

There is also the reality that when someone loses a loved one -- and this is true for anyone who has had a loss, whether a car wreck or suicide or in Afghanistan -- it is OK to be quiet and listen to them, you don't have to feel like you have to have the answers to their grief. And to say: 'yes, that must hurt, and I don't know that that is like, but thank you for sharing that with me.'

Sometimes we are uncomfortable and don't want to bring up a topic or become more involved with someone because we don't know what the right answers are.

But having people who are there for support while you struggle is what is important.

It is also important to remember that needs can develop over time. For instance, when the father of a family dies there is usually a big rush of support at first with a lot of people coming together when the crisis is happening. But after the funeral, and a few months and time goes on the wife may still be trying to get back to normal life, but the support seems to have dried up.

Again, it is about being intentional and thinking, OK, these people lost their son, their daughter, their wife, their husband, their dad, or their mom -- maybe a birthday is coming up, or an anniversary. There is always something that reemphasizes that fact of the loss. The goal is to be intentional and available on a longer-term basis.