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Ministry fair at Army base connects faith & military to help soldiers, families in crisis

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (BP) — Heather Junkin was putting 9-month-old Adelynn to bed when the sound rang out, perhaps a Vodka bottle that had crashed to the floor.

The young military wife rushed to the hallway to see her husband Justin lying on the kitchen tile, blood pouring from every orifice of his face, the gun no longer in his clasp.

“I was trying to put our daughter to sleep and he committed suicide in the other room, leaving me with a 9-month old baby,” said Junkin, one of nearly 200 ministry leaders, mental health professionals and volunteers at a Jan. 11 ministry fair at Fort Campbell, the sprawling Army base that is home to the 101st Airborne Division.

Two weeks before his death, Junkin’s husband had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and given two prescription drugs for depression and anxiety. Hours before his death he began drinking Vodka excessively, compounding the drugs’ side effects of suicidal tendencies, Junkin said.

“It’s a very difficult set of emotions to deal with when someone that you love commits suicide and there’s a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of sadness. It has a different dimension than if they die respectfully,” said 27-year-old Junkin, whose husband killed himself in September 2011 after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fort Campbell’s Religious Support Office hosted the ministry fair to familiarize the faith community with the 571 support programs the military base offers to help soldiers and military families in crisis, encompassing 40 different areas of need, including soldier and family assistance, chaplaincy, medical support and prevention programs.

The military and the faith community can work together to improve the lives of soldiers, veterans and their families, said ministry fair leaders and participants.

“You are here today because you have a passion for soldiers and families and I want to thank you for coming. You see the needs that we see,” said Maj. Jimmie Gregory, a Fort Campbell family life chaplain. “So today if we do nothing more than share with you some information on the issues that we deal with on a regular basis here, and if you take that information back to your place of ministry and use it to help take care of soldiers and families, we have been successful.”

On any given Sunday, while about 1,200 soldiers worship on base at Fort Campbell in southern Kentucky, another 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers worship in nearby Clarksville, Tenn., area churches, Gregory said.

“We’re not competing against each other; we’re working together,” Gregory said. “This is a community effort.”

Soldiers returning from combat deal with a host of issues, but at the forefront are post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, infidelity, pornography and problems associated with blended families, Gregory said.

The faith community’s outreach will be crucial as the next wave of soldiers return from Afghanistan.

Joe Varney, manager of suicide prevention for Fort Campbell’s Army Substance Abuse Program, said the strength of the family is crucial to the soldier’s successful reentry into civilian life.

“Soldiers emerge from war victorious,” Varney said. “It is not the traumatic events of war that are causing our soldiers to kill themselves.”

Instead, 70 percent of suicides are about failed relationships, Varney said. In 2012, 321 Army soldiers committed suicide, Varney said, 181 of them active duty service members.

Theresa Benchoff, a physician and director of Fort Campbell’s Warrior and Resiliency Center, said the church can contribute greatly to the health of the family.

“We’ve done everything we know to do and the suicide [rate] keeps going up,” Benchoff said. “Anything we as a community can do to support the family network so it doesn’t fall apart and become broken, I think that’s what stops this vicious cycle that we find ourselves in.

“My husband has been in Afghanistan five times,” Benchoff said, “so I know who helped me during each of those deployments, and it was people in the church, people in the community.”

Particularly, the faith community can provide a non-threatening setting in which soldiers and family members can discuss their problems and, when needed, refer individuals to military programs for added help.

Junkin said her husband expressed an extreme stigma associated with soldiers who struggle with mental health issues.

“I remember him specifically telling me about some people who had been ridiculed within the unit for needing services,” Junkin said. “In general, it was a negative thing to need help, and that’s where the communities come in. Until that stigma is broken down, someone needs to fill the gap. And that’s what this is all about.”

Timothy A. Collazo, an Army veteran who pastors Gordonsville Baptist Church in Hopkinsville, a congregation in the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky, said leaders must be transparent and must reach out to soldiers to discern their needs.

“As leaders both spiritual and in the secular realm, the first thing we have to do is make ourselves approachable. If we’re not approachable, there’s hardly any way that you’re going to be able to identify that there’s a problem,” Collazo said. “There has to be willingness to engage. I think this is the benefit of this program here today, that once you have indentified [the problem] and you’ve given spiritual advice, if you’re above your head, for the lack of a better term … that you direct the individual and their family to the proper agencies. That’s why we’re here today.”

Junkin said the church may have been able to help save her husband’s life.

“I think if churches could show that they have the knowledge base to relate … if they make it known that they have talked to [soldiers] just like them … [and] could help them too, that would help,” Junkin said.

Churches may contact Fort Campbell’s Chaplain Family Life Center at 270-798-3316.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).