As chaplain for the Maryland National Guard, in 2005 I helped launch Partners in Care, an innovative program linking religious congregations with members of the Maryland National Guard. The system is simple: A faith community of any denomination formally pledges to provide free help to National Guardsmen and women, with no religious obligation, affiliation, or strings attached.
Houses of worship across Maryland were eager to support men and women in uniform, but there was no clear way to integrate the faith community with the military. Partners in Care bridges the two.
I hear stories of Partners in Care successes all the time. One Guardswoman, a single mother, lacked transportation to doctors' appointments. Local church members who shuttled her around town discovered she needed more than just a ride: The soldier was underemployed, and struggling to support her family. Congregation members introduced her to an aerospace professional in the church, who hired her for a better-paying position with benefits. That simple act transformed her life, and strengthened our National Guard. Such good will defines Partners in Care, underscoring the importance of connecting returning members of the Guard with their community.
Everyone knows that American troops have been confronting threats in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. But not many realize that nearly half of those deployed -- more than 1 million men and women -- served as "citizen soldiers" with the Guard or Reserve. Many of our young warriors know only a wartime military. Never before have our citizen soldiers been so stretched. People have lost their sense of normal.
While many active duty military members live on bases or in military-centric communities, members of our National Guard and Reserve live next door. They deploy from towns and cities across every state. Guard duty historically meant one weekend a month and mobilizing during a local or national crisis; it now routinely includes nine-month deployments to a war zone thousands of miles away -- putting family, finances, education and work on hold. We answer the call to defend our country with pride, courage and honor, but it can take a toll.
For these defenders hidden in plain sight, transitions back home from the battlefield can be rocky. When Guardsmen and women come to me as a chaplain, I encounter them as a whole person, try to understand their needs and make recommendations to connect them with support. Psychologists, financial planners and job training are parts of the puzzle. At times our discussions touch on faith; other times, warriors simply share concerns.
Churches, temples and mosques comprise a powerful national network and form the foundation of many communities across America. When we bring religious groups into the circle of resources available to those who serve, we can better support Guardsmen and women spread across the state, some of whom live hours from the nearest U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) facility. Crisis takes many forms; Partners in Care mobilizes faith organizations to strengthen the community safety net for the men and women who defend our nation. Most religious traditions urge their followers to care for their neighbors. For those of us who serve in the National Guard, we are your neighbors.
Today, we work with 93 religious groups and organizations. Jewish, Protestant, Ukranian Catholic congregations, even Christian motorcycle clubs, among others, have partnered with the Maryland National Guard in every corner of our state. Partners in Care has since spread to 22 other states, and the DoD is working to adopt a similar initiative across the service branches.
Last year, we referred 138 members of the Guard to Maryland Partners in Care congregations embedded in communities where these men and women live. Nearly half of those folks' immediate need was food. Some received simple help such as lawn mowing or home repair. But once caring church or temple volunteers get to know these Guardsmen and women, they can tell when something isn't right. A critical part of Guardsmen's support system, Partners in Care volunteers often uncover more serious concerns -- and can help.
As our warriors are pushed to their limits, Partners in Care offers an important line of defense against Veteran and military suicide. When soldiers feel disconnected and isolated, we show them that they are not alone. Volunteers undergo suicide prevention training and learn the warning signs. And Partners in Care works closely with VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide warriors comprehensive support, including the toll-free Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1).
Our hope is that a program like Partners in Care will strengthen our soldiers' and Guardsmen's connection to the community. We want to empower everyone with the knowledge of available help and how to access it. Each of us has the power to help our neighbors, to support the Veteran or service member next door.
Our message is, "You're not alone. We're here." It may not be a cure-all, but neighbors helping neighbors is something we can all put our faith in.
This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to email@example.com.
And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.