Connecting with Combat Troops

Paul C. Ziemer (New Ulm, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Growing up a little north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Paul C. Ziemer graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 1970. His first congregation was a mission in Norfolk, Virginia, and in following years he served a number of congregations on the East Coast of the United States, a few in Wisconsin, and then as principal at Luther High School, Onalaska, Wisconsin. Over the years he often maintained a ministry to the military, and now serves as the WELS National Civilian Chaplain to the Military.

The greatest challenge in ministering to military personnel is the lack of connections to them.

Sometimes the disconnect is caused by physical space. They may be far across an ocean. Or they may be bobbing on an ocean in a small city aboard a ship, or under water in a submarine. Stateside, they may be hundreds of miles from the closest ELS or WELS congregation.

At other times, the disconnection is the result of the circumstances they are in. Basic training allows little contact with the outside world. Pre-deployment training is the same. They may never have a chance to see the inside of an ELS or WELS church three miles away—and that pastor may never have a chance to see them where they are training.

But, the greatest disconnect is usually a cultural one. Not recognized by most civilians, there is a major divide between the civilian world and the military world. This division can make effective communication most difficult with the people we most need to communicate with.

The Lutheran Military Support Group (LMSG) serves as a rich resource for WELS and ELS Military Services.

In Far Away Places

U. S. Troops are scattered around the globe. We might first think of those on the ground in the Middle East war zone, and we should. But we also have people aboard ships in that zone. There has been a build-up of U.S. forces in the Pacific. So again, we have people aboard ships, as well as troops on the ground at places like Okinawa, Guam, and South Korea. Special Forces end up in places that are never mentioned by them or the news media.

Our most common method of making a connection is email. Devotions written with military personnel in mind are sent out once a week.

An email is sent to individuals to form a personal connection. Since we know the person's hometown and congregation, we can make references to these places in a manner that is meaningful to the person.

Most military units have websites that reveal the circumstances the person is living under. This gives us insight into the person's daily life. It may show pictures of comrades, or even of the person himself. We want to touch the person's awareness of fond experiences to connect with us even though we are strangers.

Email is the primary method of announcing when the WELS civilian chaplain will be in a certain place in the war zone. Worship services can be scheduled. Encouragement to travel to the specified Camp or Forward Operating Base (FOB) can be offered. People not in our database can be reached as friends contact friends.

But the best connections are the visual ones. Skype and similar programs offer an opportunity to connect on a level almost as good as face-to-face. Simple encouragement and complex counseling can take place in spite of the distance separating us.

Many deployed troops have the chance to link up to the streaming services of ELS or WELS congregations—maybe with a home congregation, or just a congregation they like to "join in" with.

The Downside

Modern technology can allow communication to be accessed by unknown others. At times Special Forces troops are not allowed to use the Internet when they are in a sensitive area or on a special mission. A list of our troops sent into cyberspace dare not reveal the rank of a person because officers are targeted by the enemy. I once was banned from all U.S. installations in the war zone because someone in Kuwait saw a picture I posted on the WELS website. It revealed my presence at an installation that, officially, I was not at. (This was quickly remedied…)

Addresses of families of deployed troops can be identified by people who wish them harm. Abusive hate mail can be sent to them, or worse yet, it increases the chance of poison or an explosive in an envelope.

In Restricted Places

During times of special training, or secret operations, it is usually impossible to have personal contact with a person unless in an emergency situation. During training sessions, the extreme focus is to be upon the skills being learned and the people one is training with. Everything else is viewed as a distraction.

During covert operations, contact with outsiders could endanger the mission and the lives of people on the mission.

Most civilians are familiar with basic training. They understand that communication with the outside world needs to be very restricted. Even letters to worried moms are tightly regulated. But special training with severe restrictions takes place at other times. For nine months before deployment most National Guard troops are far away from home with controlled access to the outside world. When Special Forces, such as Army Green Berets, Rangers, and Delta Force troops, or Navy Seals prepare for a special operation the lockdown of communication with outsiders is often total.

The restriction against outside communication includes everything that modern technology offers—except. Except what is pre-recorded. It varies with situations, but it is possible in some cases for a soldier on a covert operation in hostile territory to listen to an MP3 file containing a hymn, a Bible recording, or a previously downloaded devotion.

To stay in touch with people who live under communication restrictions, planning and work must take place ahead of time. But it can be done.

The people with the best insight into what is involved, and what might be done, are people who have already been in those positions.

Some of these people are still in active duty service. But many have returned to the civilian world as veterans. They think back to their experiences and envision what would have worked for them. They understand Operations Security (OPSEC) and can advise us how to plan and what to offer for today's troops—when much more advanced communication is available.

The Downside

Modern technology can allow military families to receive more information about their loved one than is good for them. Most civilians are not prepared to see videos of their loved one under attack, or the bleeding bodies of his comrades. The reverse is also true. The wife who sends repeated emails about how she hates military life, how badly the children are doing in school, and how she is regularly going out to lunch with their mutual male friend, is going to add to his stress level.

The couple in a rapid-exchange argument over the Internet just before the warrior heads out on a mission is increasing the chances that his troubled mind will not enable him to act as quickly or as clearly as it should.

And, the temptation to be paid big money for leaking secret military information is greater with the Internet than without it.

In Places Not Understood by Civilians

Civilians usually do not realize it, and many do not want to admit to it, but the military world is far different from the civilian world. Many civilians assume being in the military is basically having a different type of job while wearing a distinctive uniform. Those in the uniform know that their world changed in basic training and every year in uniform deepened the divide from the civilian world. Those who have undergone combat live the rest of their lives in a world the civilian cannot imagine.

Technology cannot completely bridge the gap between warrior and civilian, but it can lessen it somewhat. Whether the closing of this gap is a good or bad thing is still up for discussion.

Years ago, families at home were dependent upon letters from the battlefield that sometimes took months to arrive. Facebook, Instant Messaging, Email and Skype have changed all that.

I have had military wives tell me before a worship service in the States, "Please have a prayer for my husband. He's going outside the wire in a few minutes!" The wife would be that proverbial nervous wreck until another message came in saying he was Ok. If he returned from the mission later than expected, or he had something else he needed to do, or he just forgot to check back in, the anxiety and stress on the part of the wife would skyrocket.

This type of communication and videos, including those posted online for all to see, have given the impression that civilians today better understand the mindset of the warrior. They do not.

They do help to understand what is going on around the warrior. They do little to help understand what is going on inside of those who make defending the nation their life's work—or the pain they carry in their inmost being.

Communicating clearly and completely with the civilian world is not likely to ever be successful—nor is that of prime importance. Communicating with fellow warriors is, however, possible and vital!

By means of the Internet the Vietnam veteran can talk heart-to-heart with the veteran of the Gulf Wars. By means of video conferencing, former unit comrades can reminisce without having to travel. The older they grow, the more important this becomes.

By means of the Internet a stressed out soldier in Afghanistan can see and talk to a pastor in the States. By means of the Internet a victim of PTSD can receive spiritual counseling from a qualified ELS or WELS counselor living miles away. Through the same media, that counselor can connect with the local pastor to share ideas and offer support. The counselor may even lead a group session with PTSD victims through cyberspace.

Ministry to the modern military demands the use of modern media technology.

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Judy Kuster 26 days ago
Thank you for raising awareness of some of the challenges of this important ministry, and for the work of the LMSG. I do think the goal of the LMSG to maintain personal connection is very important (as you are doing) whenever that is possible through email or Skype.

If the military members are allowed to have cell phones, audio or text Bibles can be downloaded for daily listening or reading. But if cell phones are not permitted, some of the “physical space” problems you mention, can probably best be handled (as you do) with devotional books, books of sermons, or schedule of daily Bible readings. But one of the situations (being “hundreds of miles from the closest ELS or WELS congregation”) may be remedied by the numerous congregations that are streaming services or archiving sermons online. Links to what is available are on my paper in this conference (“Free Internet Bibles and Bible Stories for Gospel Outreach around the World” – near the end of the paper under “Free online text devotions, magazines, streamed church services and archived sermons”).

We attended the recent funeral of Don Heiliger, a retired Colonel who was a prisoner of war for nearly 6 years in Viet Nam. He had no contact with a Bible, Christian literature, or pastors for many years, but his early Christian training from his parents and his church where he memorized many hymns and Bible passages, sustained him those years (and throughout his whole life) as he became “the preacher” in the Hanoi Hilton when some contact with other POWs was allowed. To me, that also highlights something that must start early in the lives of those who serve in the military (or anyone).

I wonder what kind of assistance the LMSG has considered for the families of those in the military who are waiting and praying for their service member at home.
Chaplain Ziemer 25 days ago
Judy, you make some very good points, and offer some excellent suggestions. Colonel Heiliger is an example of the critical work that is being done in local congregations as they lead youngsters to grow into the Word. He was able to create a worship service in his mind when he was in solitary. Unlike my Sunday School and Catechism Class days, today there are many media resources to relay scriptural truths. The children who benefit from this will have an internal reserve that they can later draw upon when they do not have access to physical materials. Not only do combat troops draw back these truths, but many others, including those afflicted with Alzheimer's.

The LMSG is working on a number of plans to assist those who are waiting for loved ones to return from deployment. WELS Military
Services also attempts to address these needs. One project in development is arranging for families of deployed personnel to connect via the Internet. I expect you will hear more about this in the future. A special LMSG goal is to have a LMSG liaison in every WELS and ELS congregation. Among other duties, this veteran will encourage and support the congregation's efforts to take special care of that military family.
Judy Kuster 25 days ago
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I cannot imagine the work you put into this – a true labor of love - on what is probably a very small (if any) budget, so please don’t take my suggestions as a “to do” list. But one thing you mentioned on your “list” is to identify a liaison in every ELS/WELS congregation. What a great idea for enlisting a retired military individual or family to take that on as a project! The ELS school in Mankato (Mt. Olive) has (or had) a really nice poster that drew attention to church members who were past and present members of the military – a picture when available, and a short “bio” of their service. I was amazed how many in that congregation there were! I knew (or know) most of them, and never realized before their military service. I’m going to suggest such a poster on an article on this conference by Ruthann Mickelson who may have already done such a poster (she’s done over 60 according to her article). But a permanent poster somewhere in our congregations would serve as an important reminder to thank them, and to remember current members of the military in our prayers. How would one go about knowing who has served in the military in a congregation – put an announcement in the bulletin or church newsletter?
Paul Ziemer 20 days ago
Judy, a permanent poster would be a wonderful idea! I believe that I can find funding for that project.
Congregations that have LMSG liaisons already have a system of finding out who the active duty and veteran members are. (That covers over 140 ELS and WELS congregations--with the numbers growing)
The LMSG has plans to contact each ELS and WELS congregation in connection with Memorial Day, providing sample prayers and other ideas. It could include a request for the congregation to take special efforts to identify its military people in connection with that event.
I stand ready to support that poster effort in any way possible!
Ruthann Mickelson 19 days ago
A general poster sent out to all congregations (especially for Memorial Day or Veteran's Day) that could be posted in every congregation is a great idea. I also like the idea of a more "personal poster" with pictures of all church members who serve (or have served) in the military as well. It is one that I plan to look into for our congregation in the future. Maybe that idea could also be suggested to any congregation as well.
Paul Ziemer 17 days ago
The "personal poster" is a great idea. We will share that with congregations. Do you have a suggestion for how we could start the project of providing a general poster? Could you design one?
Ruthann Mickelson 14 days ago
I am not very good at designing posters. I like doing bulletin boards. There must be someone out there who is good at designing posters. I will check around, too. What kind of information would you want to be put on a general type of poster? I could picture that being in the center of a display and then each congregation could put pictures, etc. of their members surrounding the poster.
Paul Ziemer 13 days ago
See? You are good at designing posters! I like your suggestion. Let me know if you find someone who might help design a poster. I will look around also.
Bruce Becker 26 days ago
Thank you for all you do through LMSG, especially those who are returning from conflict zones and struggling with PTSD. The American Forces Network (AFN) chaplains over the years have repeatedly mentioned the growing need to serve the victims of PTSD and their families. Technology is a great tool when face-to-face interaction isn't possible.

For those serving beyond the U.S. borders, another resource for our military personnel to hear the Gospel is Time of Grace Ministry. Time of Grace is broadcast on AFN every week.

Thanks again for your service to those who have served us and our country.
Chaplain Ziemer 25 days ago
Thanks for drawing attention to Time of Grace. We have received the report that it is the most frequently listened to religious program offered by the American Forces Network. So not only WELS troops benefit from this ministry.
Mark R. Harrington 21 days ago
Thank you Chaplain Ziemer for your post and inspiration for outreach to the military! In the case of our congregation (Faith Lutheran Church, San Antonio, TX) there are military bases in our community. Thus, we have reached out directly to a military Chaplain at Lackland Air Force Base and provided him information regarding our Confessional Lutheran congregation, BIOs on the Pastor and myself (as Dir. of Evangelism) and how we could serve and be of help to the military community. Perhaps other congregations in similar situations in which there is a military base not far from their community could also reach out to the Chaplains office for that respective base (if they have not already done so) in order to network and establish lines of communication. A local military community has tremendous potential for outreach and likewise can be a very helpful resource to a congregation.
Chaplain Ziemer 20 days ago
Mark, thank you for your note! Your suggestion of reaching out directly to military chaplains is a most valuable one. Sometimes our parish pastors are reluctant to do that because they are unfamiliar with how the military works (also, there is some with a gun at the gate...). Active duty or veteran people can be of great help in that situation. It's the old phrase, "Relationships! Relationships! Relationships!" that very much applies in the work of ministry to the military. I also echo your idea that a local military community has tremendous potential for outreach..." It seems that few of our people realize what a rich mission field the military is.
Mark R. Harrington 18 days ago
Tom Kuster 17 days ago
Does the military situation allow for a contact/outreach program on cellphones using SMS (text messaging using Celly) such as discussed in the Reaching out from Congregation to Community panel, or perhaps using WhatsApp as discussed by the Social Media in Latin America session?
Paul Ziemer 16 days ago
I know of no blanket regulation against this, but cellphone use is understandably restricted in some circumstances. I would imagine that individuals would know if they could receive such texts, and could let us know if they would want to.

This is an idea that is worth pursuing. I will begin looking into this. Thanks for the suggestion!!
Denny Behr 10 days ago
The cell phone chip concept sounds interesting......recommend we (LMSG) discuss this at our next board meeting to determine if we could find some military volunteers and conduct a "beta test"......thanks!
Matthew Mielke 10 days ago
This is all wonderful information to hear regarding outreach through media to active duty members in the armed forces and also stateside veterans! However, I was just curious how the Gospel was shared with individual members over seas before the advancement of technology?
Paul Ziemer 7 days ago
Matthew, Before modern technology the primary means of connecting with WELS combat troops was by hard mail. An exception to this was during the Vietnam War when we were able to rotate WELS pastors into Saigon for a year at a time. After Saigon fell, we began supplying a civilian chaplain to Europe, who would (and still does) travel around to visit military installations.