Film urges engagement with returning veterans

Capt. Justin Roberts

Capt. Justin Roberts

Capt. Justin Roberts went into combat without a gun — so the U.S. Army chaplain took a camera.

The resulting footage led to an award-winning documentary based on a Bible verse from the Gospel of John. While No Greater Love gives viewers an up-close, raw look at war, it has a larger purpose.

Roberts urges churches and other groups to give returning war veterans something more than gifts and recognition: community.

“People can empathize and connect with veterans in their community,” said Roberts.

With military veterans committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day, Roberts said churches have a vital ministry in understanding the challenges faced by those who return from battle and then creating meaningful relationships.

His end goal is clear: “How do we mobilize churches to meet those needs?”

Raised Southern Baptist in Texas (almost a redundancy), Roberts attended Dallas Theological Seminary and studied media arts.

In delivering death notices to families, he discovered that those who had lost a loved one to suicide responded differently from a battlefield loss. The grief was “more hollow” and with “more despair,” he said.

Roberts enlisted Lori Fong, who now teaches at Mercer University, to be co-producer due to both her film experience and volunteer work with veteran causes. Their interviews with numerous veterans and spouses added to the documentary.

Because injured soldiers are immediately transported, chaplains must be positioned near the front lines in battle. With permission from his commander, Roberts took along a camera since chaplains do not carry weapons.

Roberts deployed in 2010 with an infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division to Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. He knew early on that he would go into military service, but a later calling led him into chaplaincy.

“I had to learn how to become a soldier and how to care for a battalion that was deeply wounded from war,” he said.

Two days into service he cared for a family whose soldier son had committed suicide. It would be the first of many sad opportunities, he said, as suicide is the number one killer of service members.

“This is not a government problem; this is an American problem,” said Roberts. “… Only communities can fill that role.”

And what better place to offer support, grace, love, mercy, acceptance, hope and help, he asked, than a Christian community?

While the Army provides training and services, Roberts said veterans need more to reduce the wave of suicides. “And relationships work,” he added.

The close relationships soldiers have in times of conflict are often missing when their service ends, he noted. “You form the closest relationships you’ve ever had when you’re willing to die for each other.”

Ministry opportunities when deployed are significant as well, he said.

“You encounter the life questions in a much more dramatic, traumatic way,” he said. “It made me run to the cross even more.”

Roberts’ ministry extended beyond his personal understanding of faith, however.

“I cared for Wiccans, Vikings, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians of all kinds,” he said. “I tell them: ‘I am your chaplain; I’m going to love you where you’re at.’”

nogreaterloveLove, said Roberts, is the “best way to share my faith, for the greatest of these is love.”

Now out of the Army, Roberts still considers himself a chaplain and this documentary is a ministry tool. He wants churches to become more aware of the struggles of soldiers and veterans who return home but don’t often feel at home.

But awareness is not enough, he said. Meaningful relationships are needed.

Meeting returning soldiers through veteran groups is a good way to become “intentionally relational,” he said.

However, inviting veterans to attend church is not enough, he added. They may not feel comfortable in such public gatherings.

“But they will go fishing or rock climbing,” he said.

So his main message to churches: “Don’t focus on the problem of suicide, but on the solution of love.”

To view the trailer and learn more about the documentary No Greater Love, visit NFJ

By John D. Pierce