Rev. Robert Stokes, pastor of Canaan Galilee Baptist Church, served in the U.S. Army. His brother Jeffrey served in the Marines and was killed during a peacekeeping mission in Beirut. Robert’s uncle served in the Army and was killed in WWI. Two nephews serve in the U.S. Navy. Another nephew joined the U.S. Army.
“I do whatever I can to help veterans, because I understand,” he said. “You were not in a normal situation in a war.”
The conditions combat soldiers learn to accept and persevere through are circumstances that people might normally run from, he said. Soldiers are trained not to show emotion or feelings even during rough conditions.
“You don’t disobey an order,” he said. “You know you are going into battle and you know you may lose your life but you don’t desert, you go. That is a powerful tool if you think about it. It’s a whole different world than civilian life.”
Fellow veterans understand the process that takes place after joining the military, which is why they may find comfort in associating with each other in groups. Robert and Jeffrey bonded over the fact that they both served in the military. A lot of people don’t understand veterans when they come back from overseas. “Their brains have been rewired in a way that doesn’t comply with what is required to deal with daily life back home,” Stokes said.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder makes it even more difficult to adjust. Military personnel return with the capacity to function on varying levels, ranging from total dysfunction to normal behavior. Even when combat veterans seem to be able to function on the outside, after deployment, they may never be the same, he said.
When people push homeless veterans to the side, and when the government doesn’t assist them, sometimes they become estranged from their families because they don’t how to deal with them, Robert stated.
You leave home “normal” but when you come back, depending on your experiences, your family doesn’t understand what you encountered or how it affected you, he pointed out. They remember how the person was when they deployed. They may not be the same person. They can cover it up, but sooner or later it’s going to bubble to the surface.
“You can be close to the person you were, but never exactly the same,” Robert said. Many combat veterans don’t talk about what happened, indicating they are functioning, but are still bothered about it in the back of their minds. Often times, veterans volunteer for re-deployment because they can’t function in the civilian environment anymore. They find solace in the brotherly love that exists in their units. Combat soldiers often feel more vulnerable in the civilian world because they don’t have the comradery that exists in the service..
“You think ‘if I get out of here and make it alive, I won’t go back’,” he said. “But people come home and they don’t fit here.”
Families who have lost a military loved one go through stages of grief, sometimes including shock and resentment. The unexpected death can cause a lapse in faith. They must deal with the feeling of helplessness since there was nothing they could do to prevent their loss. Death sometimes requires forgiveness. Many times, families are left to deal with the loss without support after the funeral.
“We don’t have a great support system when someone loses a loved one,” Robert said. “It’s usually only temporary.”
Robert makes a point to check on grieving relatives until they gain strength. He advises against sympathy as time goes on, as it reminds them of their grief. He recommends taking them to a happy place. He also knows, because everyone’s relationships differ, grief is not the same across the board.
Robert believes God provided the solution in advance to the void that Jeffrey’s death caused him to endure.
“My son was born in January 1982 and my brother died in October 1983,” he said. “So, when I look at it, God had already filled that void because he already knew he was going to die.”
Raising his son distracted him from some of the tension and grief of that loss. His son gave him someone else to focus on and he was able to do with him, some of the things that he wanted to do with his brother.
“I loved my brother, but now I had another life I had to take care of,” Robert said.
Robert believes it is important to honor all of the country’s veterans who died in the line of duty. Over time, the fallen soldiers can be forgotten and people don’t always show respect for the sacrifice they made.
Rev. Robert Stokes is the pastor at Canaan Galilee Baptist Church.