LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Brent Rice didn't expect a church ritual to wash away haunting memories of war, but he hoped to draw spiritual strength.
The Iraq War veteran, who served as a tank driver in the vanguard of the U.S. invasion, walked forward at Maple Grove Baptist Church recently to have his feet washed — a ritual recalling the biblical account of Jesus washing his disciples' feet, The Courier-Journal.
The church has conducted the rite of passage with other returning veterans in recent years.
The 30-year-old Rice, a Tell City, Ind., native who now lives in Louisville, said church members "just welcomed me and loved me since the day I got here. ... That's what we should do at other churches."
The Department of Veterans Affairs agrees.
As hundreds of thousands of veterans return with physical and psychological injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA hopes to enlist clergy of all faiths to work toward similar outcomes.
A quarter of Americans in need of mental-health services will seek help first from a minister, said Chaplain Jeni Cook, associate director of the VA's National Chaplain Center. That may be especially true of military service members fearing a stigma or a career setback if they are known to be going to a psychiatrist.
"You're the people out there who first see them when they're hurting and looking for help," Cook told about 100 area clergy members at a daylong conference at General Butler State Park in Carrollton this spring that was geared toward helping veterans in their communities.
The VA seminar was part of a pilot set of eight one-day training sessions around the country known as the Rural Clergy Training Program, launched because rural veterans in particular may lack close access to veterans' services.
Cook said clergy can refer veterans to an array of medical, counseling and other services. The program is open to all religions, although the Carrollton gathering drew virtually all Christian clergy, and not just from rural areas but Louisville as well.
The Rev. John Oliver, chief of the chaplain service at the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina, said clergy don't have a "magic pill" for veterans.
And while every war leaves its own traumatic legacy, the veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan carry unique psychic burdens, Oliver said.
Rice enlisted in the Army at age 19 and arrived in Kuwait in January 2003 — on his 21st birthday. His was on one of the first tanks into Iraq with the assignment to "get to Baghdad and destroy everything in our way," he said.
One 90-minute sequence at a highway intersection during the invasion bears a deep stamp.
Rice said he can still see the bus approaching through the desert heat waves — matching the description from an intelligence warning of an explosive-laden bus filled with women and children. A tank gunner hit the target and the explosives detonated, he said, with bodies flying through the air.
At another point, he said, he witnessed a soldier shoot an elderly truck driver who refused to turn around at a checkpoint.
After returning from Iraq to his Army post, Rice said he often got into fights and drank heavily. After his discharge and return to Tell City, the pattern continued for years — drinking, driving-under-the-influence-related accidents and charges.
"I was just angry and didn't know why," Rice said. "... I was just miserable and depressed all the time. I just wanted to drink and do drugs and not feel it all."
He told his mother he didn't want to live this way anymore. She put him on a suicide hotline and he began a long road toward recovery. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said, and went through rehabilitation at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Louisville in 2010.
"It was either give up and die a horrible death or give up to God," he said.
Rice has since gone through a halfway house program, lives in an apartment, volunteers at Maple Grove Baptist and gives talks to Fort Knox soldiers about suicide prevention. He is taking courses at Campbellsville University's Louisville campus, with a goal of obtaining a social work degree and then attending seminary.
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