Student veterans find community in Bible study

640_Student_Veterans_article_img_12_2014By Renee Elder

Entering college after a tour of military duty is a little like stepping into another world.

“There’s a feeling of being isolated when you come back,” said Timothy Woody, who spent six years as a member of the Air Force Reserve with tours in the Middle East before starting college at West Virginia University in 2009.

“You try to reintegrate, but you have people asking you about military service a lot, so you’re forced to revisit it; sometimes that is something you want to do, and sometimes it’s not.”

Professor Jane Donovan, religious studies instructor at Western Virginia University and graduate of United Methodist Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., has encountered many veterans in her classes and elsewhere on campus. The university, in Morganton, Virginia, has an enrollment of about 31,000 graduate, professional and undergraduate students, several hundred of whom are military veterans.

“A number of our students have served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Donovan said. “We discovered that students returning from these wars were starting to congregate in religious studies and psychology classes. They needed help understanding the meaning of what they were doing.”

She said some veterans—especially those not directly involved in direct combat—appeared to overcome emotional hurdles and settle into civilian life relatively easily, but others struggled. One student had to leave school in the middle of a semester to deal with his mental health issues, Donovan said. Another rarely left his apartment and began missing classes due to an anxiety disorder. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, at least 900,000 veterans are now using military educational benefits to attend college or technical schools.

“Many of the veterans I spoke with felt they couldn’t can’t live with something they did or something they saw in conflict,” Donovan said. “They are coming back with a lot of guilt and a lot of need for forgiveness.”

Struck by what she had experienced on campus at WVU, Donovan sought a way to help veterans gain a spiritual and theological perspective on their feelings. About five years ago, while attending Wesley Theological Seminary for her doctor of ministry degree, Donovan developed a Bible study program specifically for veterans. She has since led the Bible study for student groups at WVU, as well as for veterans at area UMC congregations.

“Many of these men and women are religious; they are Christians and spiritually formed,” Donovan said. “They go into their military service believing they are people with a strong faith, and sometimes their experiences in war causes them to question everything they thought they knew about God.”

Donovan addresses these issues using scriptures from the Old Testament, specifically those relating to the Babylonian Empire, which existed at the site of what is now Iran.

“This has a lot of resonance with the veterans, because of the geographic association and the sense of being exiled,” she added.

Sometimes the process can be a lengthy one. Ken Robinson, a Vietnam-era veteran, attends Burke United Methodist Church in Fairfax County, about 15 miles from the Department of Defense Pentagon. He signed up for the group when Donovan offered it to members of his church.

Robinson is familiar with the challenges veterans experience as they try to pick back up the life they left behind upon deployment.

“For a lot of Vietnam vets, as well as those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, there is just no opportunity to decompress,” Robinson said. “You could be in a combat zone firefight one day, and 72 hours later, you are sitting in your living room. A few weeks later, you realize all that stuff you went through is still with you. It’s good to have someone to convince you that you are not crazy or messed up. Bringing a good group together to talk about these issues can be an invaluable resource.”

Timothy Woody, a former Air Force medic who returned to college at age 22, said he first found out about Donovan’s Bible study group on the WVU campus from another veteran, who suggested they both attend the weekly meetings. Woody, now enrolled in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the group helped him process his feelings upon returning from war.

“Mostly, it provided a place to talk and reflect on our experiences from a biblical standpoint,” Woody said. “When you come back, it’s easy to feel isolated. In the Bible study group, I was able to share stuff, to network and exchange stories with other veterans. It’s nice to have a low stress environment where you can do that—and pray.”

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Ed Folkwein

How might I obtain a copy of Prof. Donovan’s Bible study for veterans? I’m a retired UM pastor and I served in the U.S. Air Force working on Minuteman Missiles in N. Dakota during the Vietnam era. Although I have not experienced combat, I know many veterans who have. I’d be interested in offering a study like this for veterans.

Thanks, ED

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