Ministering to veterans ‘about reconciliation and healing,’ says deacon

NASHVILLE,

Tenn. (CNS) — As a lieutenant colonel in the Tennessee Army National Guard,

Deacon John Krenson was responsible for the well-being of his soldiers in many

tense situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now,

on the cusp of retirement from the guard, he is serving soldiers in a new way,

as executive director of Operation Stand Down Tennessee, a unique local nonprofit

organization that offers a wide range of services to honorably discharged

veterans and their families.

When

the position with Operation Stand Down became available last spring, Deacon

Krenson saw it as “an opportunity that I couldn’t ignore.” Deacon

Krenson, who serves at Christ the King Church in Nashville, said the position “fused

together everything that my life has been about,” providing the perfect

synthesis for his experience in the military, the diaconate, and the business

world.

While

Deacon Krenson’s military role “was all about protecting,” his role at

Operation Stand Down “is about reconciliation and healing.”

The

husband and father of two teenagers oversees its network of services designed

to help veterans after they return from war, bearing wounds both visible and

invisible.

Operation

Stand Down serves veterans from all backgrounds, with a particular focus on

those who are homeless or failing to thrive because of addiction, physical or

behavioral issues. Discharged from the regimented structure and built-in

brotherhood of the military, the vets seeking help at Operation Stand Down have

struggled on and off, for years, or even decades, after leaving active duty.

Through

its programs, they are reconnected with a holistic support system that helps

them make concrete changes and once again become healthy and self-sustaining.

Part

of the healing process happens in a nondescript back room at the agency’s

headquarters, beyond a narrow maze of cubicle offices, where veterans gather

for weekly Soul Care meetings. “There is a spiritual component to soldiers’

resiliency and we recognize that at Stand Down,” Deacon Krenson said.

Operation Stand Down is a secular organization, but does offer opportunities

for spiritual growth.

“I

am a soul and I have a body,” Soul Care leader and Vietnam veteran Larry

Malone called out at a recent meeting. “I am a soul and I have a body,”

the men repeated. After a series of call and response affirmations, the men

quieted down and listened to Scripture passages and reflections chosen by

Malone and his co-leader Terry Smith, a life coach and counselor.

“We’re

trying to address the soul here,” Malone told the Tennessee Register,

newspaper of the Nashville Diocese. “We have systems in place like the VA

that can address the physical and psychological ailments. But there’s another

place you can be wounded and those systems can’t get at that,” said

Malone. “We can be a bridge to that place.”

Malone,

a bomber pilot during the Vietnam War, knows how deep those spiritual wounds

can run. After completing numerous missions, dropping bombs on untold numbers

of Vietnamese combatants and civilians alike, “I couldn’t do it anymore,

and I quit. … It ripped a hole in my soul.”

Acting

with a lack of moral clarity amid the fog of war can cause a wound “that

takes residence in your soul and makes you hopeless. … When utter

hopelessness sets in, suicide looks good,” Malone said, in a tone that

implies he knows exactly what he’s talking about.

The

spike in veterans’ suicides since 9/11, now surpassing combat deaths, is

alarming to Malone, and he wants to do whatever he can to offer peace to vets

struggling with suicidal thoughts or lack of identity and direction.

Vietnam

veteran Craig Bothwell, his arms covered in tattoos, including one that says “Fight

or Die,” flipped through his Bible during the Soul Care meeting. Facing a

third round of leukemia, Bothwell, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam

War and is a participant in Operation Stand Down’s transitional housing

program, finds solace in the Soul Care meetings. “I need reinforcement of

this type of thing,” he said.

The

weekly meetings ended with participants, many of whom are Bothwell’s

housemates, joining hands for a final prayer before going about their days.

Among the men in the circle were Marine Corps veteran Tony Manderson and Navy

veteran Mark Evans.

When

Manderson arrived at Operation Stand Down last October he was divorced,

unemployed and temporarily staying with a friend, a fellow Marine he served

with in Iraq. “He’s the one who told me about it,” Manderson said. “I

didn’t know Stand Down existed.”

While

the organization has been around for 23 years, and has 39 full-time staff

members, it is still not well known in the community. “Most people are

surprised with how deep we are,” said Deacon Krenson.

Manderson,

who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, came in to the Stand Down

office on a Monday morning, lacking direction and essentially homeless, “looking

for a regular life again, a good job and a place of my own.”

He

was immediately identified as a good candidate for the transitional housing

program, which provides housing and support for veterans while they regain

control of their lives. He quickly moved into one of Stand Down’s seven

transitional houses in Nashville.

All

42 residents who live in one of the houses are given case management services

and must follow a strict set of guidelines to stay in the house. “It’s

important to have structure after being in the military all these years,”

said Manderson, who enlisted after graduating from high school in Fayetteville

during Operation Desert Storm, and saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Transitional

housing residents must attend weekly house meetings; actively look for

employment; go to at least seven support group meetings a week; contribute to

household expenses; complete daily chores; be home by curfew; and adhere to a

zero-tolerance policy for alcohol, drugs and violence.

The

residents — a diverse group of veterans of different ages, races, religions,

military branches and backgrounds — do have their squabbles and personality

clashes, “but you work it out,” said Manderson, who was recently

appointed assistant house manager.

The

house can even be an incubator for unlikely friendships. “There is

camaraderie with other guys in the house,” he said.

Manderson,

who was raised Southern Baptist in rural Tennessee, and his roommate Mark

Evans, an African-American who grew up in a Catholic family in the Chicago

suburbs, have a bond cemented by their common background of military service. “Vets

can relate to other vets,” Evans said.

When

Evans arrived at Operation Stand Down last spring, he was unemployed and living

in his car. A member of a submarine fleet during the Cold War era, Evans was

honorably discharged and went to college on the GI Bill, graduating in 1986. “That

gave my mother bragging rights,” he said, being the first of his seven

siblings to graduate college.

Evans

had steady employment until he suffered a brain aneurysm and a series of

strokes. “I became ill and things spiraled down after that,” he said.

He came to Nashville about a year ago to live with his brother, but when his

brother had to move, Evans had nowhere else to go.

He

sought refuge at Matthew 25, a shelter that helps homeless men, especially

veterans, get back on their feet. From there, he heard about Operation Stand

Down, and got a spot in the agency’s transitional housing program.

Evans

now rides his bike to work most days at a Circle K gas station near the house,

and although the wages are low, he’s hoping it’s a stepping stone to something

better. “I’ve almost been hired a couple of times, but there’s a lot of

competition out there,” said Evans, who attends St. Edward Church

Still,

he’s thankful for the roof over his head that Operation Stand Down provides. “They’re

doing more than family or friends could have done for me,” he said. “Who

else is doing anything? Who else is even trying?”

– –

Laurence

is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of

Nashville.