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9/11: Need for Christian-based ‘soul care’ for military grew

Evan Owens, right, prepares to lead an online leadership summit with volunteers of Reboot Recovery alongside Bryan Flannery, a veteran who began as a reluctant participant in the program but grew into a leader. Owens and his wife, Jenny, co-founded the organization dedicated to providing faith-based treatment for those healing from trauma. Photo courtesy of Reboot Recovery

PLEASANT VIEW, Tenn. (BP) – Approaching the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Evan Owens knew the trauma care network he co-founded to help soldiers returning from the war on terrorism would be busier than ever. In the 10 years since establishing REBOOT Recovery alongside his wife, Jenny, he’s learned that memories can remain raw, regardless of that saying about time and wounds.

Jenny Owens, far left, observed brain injuries and lingering spiritual wounds suffered by military service members while she worked for the Department of Defense at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Those observations led to the formation of Reboot Recovery. Photo courtesy of Reboot Recovery

Those memories and feelings of guilt bubbled up again last month as the Taliban, the enemy his clients had defeated at the price of losing friends, fellow soldiers and their own blood, regained power in Afghanistan.

“It’s been terrible and probably one of the hardest three-month windows I’ve ever been through as the executive director here,” Evan said. “I’ve had numerous conversations with people we helped, people who had made it out of their darkness and now see the equipment they used and areas of the country they and their friends patrolled, fought for and died in now handed over to the enemy.”

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, occurred when Evan was a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville. On the way to class that Tuesday, he noticed a group of students watching a fire from an apparent plane crash in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He proceeded to class thinking it was an accident and said a prayer for everyone impacted.

About 20 minutes into his class, the dean of the School of Music entered and whispered something to Evan’s professor. He nodded and proceeded to pass along the message that a second plane had hit. Neither crash, apparently, had been an accident.

As it was for everyone else, the rest of the day was a blur of checking in with loved ones and watching the news. Evan would go on to earn a music degree from Belmont, but his career led to his becoming CEO of a tech company. Jenny, also in the school of music at the time, ended up changing majors to earn a doctorate in occupational therapy from Belmont.

That career change landed her at the outpatient neurological rehab center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A desire to treat brain injuries for military personnel led to joining the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. With the war on terror fully underway, her role placed her in close proximity to observing and treating traumatic brain injuries of soldiers returning from the battlefield.

And while Jenny’s medical training helped diagnose some aspects of the trauma, there were noticeable gaps she identified through her Christian faith.

“I saw the emotional and spiritual toll on these individuals who were tough and hard-charging on the outside, but really shaken up on the inside because of what they experienced and lost,” she said.

Evan added: “A lot of people were asking questions that had nothing to do with occupational therapy. Questions like ‘Is it possible for my soul to die?’ or ‘Where was God when this terrible thing happened?’”

Each day Jenny came home and the couple talked over her observations. Looking around at their military community and seeing a need, they decided in 2011 to do something about it. REBOOT Recovery, which today has a staff of 10 and 750 volunteers spread across 36 states and seven countries, began by inviting neighbors over for spaghetti and conversation.

In addition to co-founding REBOOT Recovery, both Evan and Jenny left their jobs in 2014 to dedicate themselves full time to its mission. The organization provides a faith-based curriculum that is now being used across the country, including by many Southern Baptists.

The groups are peer-led by those who have also dealt with trauma and meet in churches, community centers, VA hospitals and other locations. A spouse or family member must attend with the client. And while the curricula are based in Christianity, those of other faiths or no faith are encouraged to attend.

“People often think others don’t want to know the dark, scary stuff they wrestle,” Jenny said. “The difference in Christian community is we want to sit down and hear it. We’re leading out of a genuine concern and love for our fellow man and we wanted to create a space where they can experience that.”

Many Southern Baptists have used the materials to minister within their own congregations as well as host groups for their community.

“Over the last five years of leading REBOOT Combat Recovery I have been able to have a front row seat to see God transform the lives of people who have served their country proudly but bear wounds that can’t be seen,” said Steve Mitchell, a member of Dallas Bay Baptist Church in Hixson, Tenn., a northern suburb of Chattanooga.

“Through REBOOT, moral and spiritual wounds can be healed and those who suffer from trauma can enjoy a brighter future because they have the power of the greatest healer, Jesus Christ.”

Dave Schell, a REBOOT Recovery leader and member of Cross Church Pinnacle Hills in Rogers, Ark., witnessed the emergence of a veteran who was forced by his spouse to attend as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. Depression, self-imposed isolation, pain toward his parents and severe PTSD had wracked him for years. Today he is still married and has started a small business with his father.

“The course takes the approach of dealing with soul wounds, and only the Creator can heal the soul,” Schell said. “In my short time since 2019 leading multiple courses, it’s uplifting and powerful to see marriages restored, hearts surrendered to the Lord and numerous veterans becoming productive members of society.”

Kabul’s fall to the Taliban and 9/11’s anniversary have rekindled many feelings of loss, frustration and anger, Jenny said. Among them was dealing with moral injury, which includes feelings of guilt or shame for surviving combat while others didn’t as well as reconciling acts committed during war that may conflict with one’s personal moral code or faith.

“Most people, Christian or not, would say we’re made up of mind, body and soul,” Evan said. “If that’s true, no one questions that trauma harms your body and mind. But if I were to ask you if trauma harms your soul, what would the symptoms be? How would you go about healing a wounded soul?

“Who better to heal a wounded soul than God Himself?”

In recent years, REBOOT Recovery has added two more programs – one geared toward first responders and another for anyone suffering from trauma. In its time, the organization has built a sizeable amount of data and research that is now cited in mental health publications such as Military Psychology and Traumatology.

One of those who has benefitted is Jenny’s mother, realizing that the trauma she suffered at age 13 – left to help raise her three sisters when their mother left the family – had never been addressed.

“So many people over the years have said they saw such a dramatic change in their loved one’s life,” Jenny said. “In this case, I saw such a change in my mom.”