Divinity students draw attention to military suicides

May. 10, 2014 @ 04:02 PM

A group of Duke University Divinity School students hopes to start an ongoing dialogue with the military about the high number of suicides among military personnel.

While graduates and visitors gathered around Duke Chapel Saturday for the university’s Baccalaureate services, some of the divinity students held a service of reconciliation on the lawn outside the chapel to draw attention to the problem.

As he led the “Liturgy of Confession and Reconciliation,” Todd Lovell, a third year divinity student, asked those gathered to ponder their own and the church’s complicity in the problem of suicides. “This has been on our hearts all year,” Lovell said.

While the military is aware of suicides and is trying to address the problem, “the Christian church also has something to offer the veterans,” he said.

Members of Milites Christi, a student group in the Divinity School, led the service. Milites Christi addresses how society and faith communities can support veterans. Some, but not all, members of the group are veterans of the military.

The service came one day before Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was scheduled to address Duke’s graduating class. Lovell said Milites Christi had been in contact with Dempsey’s office and asked him to attend the service. Dempsey could not attend, “but they were in full support of what we’re doing,” Lovell said.

Members of Milites Christi plan to continue contact with Dempsey, and plan to have some kind of event or discussion in the fall about suicides among soldiers.

The students set up a table with some information with grim statistics. For every service person killed in combat, 25 kill themselves, one sign stated. Suicide among special forces units also is at a record high.

The service “is a challenge to the military, but in many ways it’s directed to the church,” Lovell said. Christian churches have a long history of ministering to war veterans, but during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the church has in many ways forsaken that role, he said.

“We’re hoping in the longer run we can facilitate an opening between churches and the military,” said Robert Densmore, a second-year divinity student. Densmore is a veteran who knows about the military’s climate of stress. Expectations are high, and when one adds other concerns like family and mortgages to the mix, it creates a situation that many Americans are not aware of and do not understand, he said.

The idea for the Saturday service came about a month ago when students had a discussion with Stanley Hauerwas, a professor in the Divinity School, about suicides in the military, and the church’s lack of involvement in ministering to soldiers. That session led to more discussion, and the idea of having an event during graduation.

Members of Milites Christi “all have different views on war and politics,” but agree that the church must address issues facing veterans, Lovell said.

The group’s next response is to continue the dialogue with Gen. Dempsey’s staff, said Densmore. The high number of suicides is “a picture of the moral care we need to pay to veterans,” he said.