A small evangelical church in Minnetrista made a commitment to frontline workers Aug. 16 when an honor guard saluted the U.S. flag, a new banner now flying high on the church grounds. “I want to make sure we’re standing firm in what we believe in,” said Bill Breimhorst, senior pastor at Fairview Evangelical.
The new flag, like Sunday’s mid-morning ceremony, wasn’t intended as political message but rather as herald to something that, this fall, will be more than symbolism.
Breimhorst, a 17-year police force veteran before entering the ministry at Fairview, has been involved with Minneapolis-based Operation HighGround (OpHG) since the early 2000s. Now he and OpHG’s Rick Norling say they hope to make Fairview the flagship for the nonprofit’s program “Passing the Baton,” which aims to bridge the gap between experiencing trauma and getting help.
Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of veteran funerals shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq had led Breimhorst to OpHG; he said he wanted to be on the side of welcome and to help returning service members reintegrate into civilian life.
Operation HighGround has largely centered on helping military veterans, but Breimhorst said the program at Fairview will be for all frontline workers, including police, firefighters and EMS personnel.
“They all, from a human perspective, all feel grief, carry a burden, carry a weight that a place like Fairview can open it up and give them what is necessary to go to the next level,” he said.
The program is also intended for their families. Breimhorst noted that the distress felt by loved ones as a result of another’s trauma is often overlooked.
More than 2,200 programs for veterans exist today, with about half of these partnered in some way with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said OpHG’s Norling. “And we’re still seeing suicide climb up 25 percent among active duty military.”
The VA’s 2019 report on veteran suicide prevention shows that more than 6,000 veterans have died from suicide each year from 2008 to 2017. Data show that suicide rates are higher among active duty and veteran service members than among the general population, but that they’re about equal when adjusted for age and sex since young males—who make up most of the U.S. military population—are most susceptible.
More than combatting suicide, the program out of OpHG aims to start the conversation around other effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including violent anger, addiction or distancing from others, all of which can add to the burden over time. “You don’t know when it’s necessarily going to manifest,” said Norling.
Both Breimhorst and Norling credited faith-based programs with giving sufferers a better chance of success for the way they center on forgiveness.
“The biggest problem we run into, and the biggest resource, has been forgiveness: forgiveness for not being there for somebody, which would fall into a survivor’s guilt, which somebody would [then] be dealing with a moral injury, feeling like what they’ve done was not morally correct or what they’ve seen was not morally correct—and not being able to change it. And a lot of times forgiveness doesn’t necessarily come from a clinical perspective,” said Norling. “You can try to rationally figure it out, but typically when the breakdown comes, when you want to take your own life, it’s not really a rational decision.”
One of the largest barriers service members often have to getting help for PTSD is the fear of being looked down upon or of being criticized, they said.
“Trust is an extremely high barrier. If you don’t trust someone to go to, you’re going to stuff it and it gets worse and worse and worse,” said Breimhorst, who described the program coming to Fairview as “a way of reaching out to people and just saying, ‘We have an ear for you.’ It’s a matter of breaking down a lot of the barriers.”
The program run through OpHG is not itself a counseling program, but it is the starting point for getting help, said Norling. “The idea is to open up the door of understanding so that we can bring them to a trained counselor. It’s taking over from the military chaplain, whose job title is just to deal with the emotional needs of the military. That’s their primary function. That’s where the passing of the baton is, in bringing it into the church and letting the church pick up the baton and run the rest of the way.”
A VISUAL BEACON
Breimhorst said that having the American flag installed at the church, lit up and flying all hours, was something he’s wanted for a long time and that it was a separate idea from the OpHG initiative but that it is now conjoined with it.
“If we’re going to be doing this program, we have to let people know that we stand for our country, we stand for its principles,” he said. “We’re not just running a program. We’re running a whole concept, a whole ideal here from our church. That’s very important to me, that we visibly show that we are standing for our country and offering help and aid in many different ways and this is just one of them.”