Lazarus Project offers military families refuge

Lazarus Project offers military families refuge


At ease, soldier!

Update: With troops returning to Fort Campbell Army Post from Iraq almost daily, the demand for counseling through The Lazarus Project has "exploded," says the Rev. Jodi McCullah. The ministry continues to expand, seeking to be a place "where every door is the right door" for returning soldiers and veterans needing the services of counselors, pastors and social workers.  The Lazarus Project will resume support groups this spring as two brigades are deployed to Afghanistan from Fort Campbell — the third and fourth deployments for some troops.

Don McCasland, a veteran and student featured in this story that originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Interpreter, will be a full-time intern with The Lazarus Project during the 2012 spring semester as he completes requirements for his bachelor's degree in social work. McCullah and McCasland have shared their work in The Lazarus Project with United Methodist groups in North Carolina and Texas wanting to develop support ministries for veterans and families.

To learn more about The Lazarus Project visit

For military families and veterans, the Lazarus Project creates space for relief and healing

Meet some of the participants in this UMTV report

By Carrie Madren

Joanne and Don McCasland serve with Project Lazarus. Don McCasland, a retired veteran, is also studying social work at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.
Joanne and Don McCasland serve with Project Lazarus. Don McCasland, a retired veteran, is also studying social work at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. UMCOM PHOTO/RONNY PERRY
What Don McCasland saw during his last military tour in Iraq affected him deeply. When he returned home, post-traumatic stress disorder tightened its grip. Emotions and traumatic memories constantly dogged him. Problems in his marriage and family neared the breaking point.

"I realized, OK, I need help. I was just on the verge of losing my family because of my problems," recalls McCasland, who found support, and now uses his experiences to help others in the same situation.

Stories like McCasland's inspired creation of The Lazarus Project, which connects military personnel, their families and veterans with support groups, free counseling and other help. Initiated by Austin Peay State University's Wesley Foundation, it includes United Methodist churches in the vicinity of the Fort Campbell Army Post, which has some 20,000 troops deployed.

"We started realizing that students were coming in with needs related to being connected to the military and needs that were not being met," says the Rev. Jodi McCullah. An Army veteran, she is campus minister at the university in Clarksville, Tenn. Students needed counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as combat and military family-related problems "not your average counseling for

Military spouses and active and retired soldiers participate in Project Lazarus support groups.
Military spouses and active and retired soldiers participate in Project Lazarus support groups. UMCOM PHOTO/RONNY PERRY
someone in college," she says. Now, The Lazarus Project reaches beyond the campus working with area churches to provide counseling services and other outreach to local military families.

Finding strength in numbers

"The stress level for the families of the deployed soldiers is so high that most of us have no clue how difficult their lives are," McCullah says.

Across the United States, families split by deployment deal with loneliness, worry, raising children alone, communication issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates of formerly deployed personnel are on the rise. "They hear all the time: You soldier up; you don't talk about it. And so they're not going to ask for help," McCullah says. "You have to go to them, and you have to be persistent."

Joanne McCasland, Don's wife and a support group volunteer, battled constant isolation during her husband's deployments. "I struggled because we weren't communicating well," she recalls. "I had my struggles at home with our son and just with worrying about him and dealing with everything myself." Attending a support group lightened the burden, as she realized that that the problems she was experiencing are very common.

Support groups offer a comfortable venue for military families to share burdens and worries. "My first time going to it, I felt the next morning like a weight had been lifted off my chest, like I was not the only person out there going through all of this," echoes Lori Bednarczyk, whose husband is deployed.

Lazarus' counseling services also open the door for soldiers to share, often a difficult first step, especially for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers coming back with serious issues often won't come in for help right away, McCullah says. But if their spouses have a relationship with a trusted group or person, the community around them can be ready to help.

Grassroots help

Volunteers provide activities for children while their parents attend Project Lazarus support groups.
Volunteers provide activities for children while their parents attend Project Lazarus support groups. UMCOM PHOTO/RONNY PERRY
The ministry's name comes from the story of Lazarus in Luke and John's Gospels. After Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, he tells the gathered community to unbind him. That is the role of local churches, McCullah says, to remove the bindings from soldiers, spouses and their children.

Churches can form small groups for sharing, support and prayer. They also can find ways to offer free counseling to help individuals cope with military-related stress, loneliness, marriage issues or anger. A weekly meal together for military families may lighten the load. Even the smallest church can offer space for counseling or support group meetings.

New Providence United Methodist Church near Fort Campbell offers a military family adoption ministry. A non-military family provides regular check-ins, invitations and care.

"It's somebody calling them on the phone or stopping by the house and saying, Hey, how are things? Are you doing OK? Do you need anything?'" explains Don McCasland. Now retired from the military, he is studying to become a social worker while serving as an administrative assistant for The Lazarus Project. When offering support, be specific, he says. Instead of asking a military spouse what he or she needs, offer to babysit kids or make Tuesday night's dinner.

Local congregations can extend God's love and meet needs.

"Churches don't necessarily have to understand the journey," says Meegan Pierotti-Tietje, wife of a deployed chaplain, but they can provide a church family that connects with people and provides support.

As with any ministry, personal invitation is vital, as is gentle follow-up. Knowing that support is there isn't always enough. Often, explains Pierotti-Tietje, support requires pulling military spouses or veterans out of their shells and into a safe place where they can share, cry and grow.

Military support groups have also opened the door to church membership.

Bednarczyk says that after finding support from The Lazarus Project at New Providence in Clarksville, she and her children have become regular attendees.

It takes time to build trust and cohesive groups. Where there's a sincere effort at listening and support, though, military families will respond and find refuge.

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Olney, Md. The story is based on interviews conducted by Chuck Long, a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.