Vet helps other vets find faith

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | November 2, 2016

Retired social worker who counseled veterans now helps vets share faith journey

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]DE PERE — As a Vietnam veteran, George Kamps knows from experience some of the challenges vets have after returning home. As a clinical social worker, Kamps has spent nearly half of his life helping other veterans overcome those challenges.

Now retired, Kamps, a member of St. Agnes Parish, spends time helping veterans build a relationship with God through sessions offered at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality. The most recent program, held Nov. 2, was titled “Veterans Share their Faith Journey: Healing Symbols from Scripture.”

Your Catholic Neighbor: George Kamps (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Your Catholic Neighbor: George Kamps (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Faith in God is one thing many veterans returning from combat question, said Kamps. “For most guys, ‘disconnected’ best describes how they felt — with family, with society and with God.”

Born in Clintonville, Kamps graduated from Premontre High School in Green Bay in 1966 and entered UW-Green Bay. Before completing his undergraduate degree, Kamps enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 1969 and spent 22 months on active duty as a radar man aboard a destroyer, including six months off the coast of Vietnam.

He returned home to his wife, Rita, whom he married in 1970, and completed a bachelor’s degree at UWGB, followed by a master’s degree at UW-Milwaukee in 1974. The couple has three daughters and one son: Rebecca, Rachael, Gina and Dan. Kamps began his profession as a clinical social worker in Green Bay after accepting a position with Brown County Human Services in 1975.

After a transfer to Family Services Association of Brown County in 1976, Kamps began counseling veterans in 1983. “There was an emerging need of Vietnam-era veterans,” he said. “They were finally becoming more vocal and seeking services for post-traumatic stress.”

Kamps and another therapist worked with vets from seven area counties, inviting them to come together to talk. “When they came back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the atmosphere in our country was pretty hostile,” said Kamps. “There was a lot of animosity directed toward veterans, so they went underground. They didn’t’ proclaim to be veterans. They just tried to go about their business and get back to work and raise a family and stay out of the news.”

But pent-up emotions did not always allow that to happen.

“They were still dealing with the effects of trauma, as well as the secondary stress of being sort of ostracized in their own country,” said Kamps. “So at family services, we ended up having a rap group (for veterans), a spouse support group and a group for their children.”

Kamps learned that many veterans were coping with their experiences by abusing alcohol and drugs, not handling authority or living in unhealthy relationships. “When I got in touch with some of these guys, they were pretty exhausted mentally from trying a lot of things to just survive,” he said. “Those (experiences) taught me a lot about the effects of war.”

Kamps took a new counseling position with the Oneida Nation in 1989 and also started a private practice in 1990 in Green Bay. During these times, he also served veterans. About seven years ago, a fellow social worker, Jim Smits, asked Kamps if he would help Judy Turba of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality create a program for vets.

The opportunity gave Kamps a chance to better explore the role of faith in a veteran’s life.

“For a number of years, I had become more comfortable or able to ask questions about veterans’ spiritual beliefs,” said Kamps. “I believe there is that spiritual component in everyone and so I made it a point to ask that.”

While making sure not to impose his beliefs on others, he would ask if they “had a way of describing their spiritual beliefs. I got a variety of responses.”

“In most cases, their experiences in Vietnam had challenged whatever belief system they went in with,” said Kamps. “They couldn’t rationalize why some things had happened that they witnessed or were a part of and how God let that happen.”

Kamps said he helped veterans work through some of these issues. He would explain that, like one’s physical body needing water, rest and food, the “spiritual self needs nourishment of its own.” He likened it to a campfire.

“If you don’t put any kindling or wood on the fire, pretty soon you can’t find any embers down in the pit. No warmth, no light,” he said. “That’s kind of like the spiritual flame inside. It gets dimmer and dimmer, it doesn’t give much heat or light and things get pretty dark. … Guys could relate to that. So they worked at their faith.”

Kamps said counseling veterans and helping them overcome their dark emotions has helped fortify his own faith.

“It’s helped me to describe and define where I am at,” he said. “Sometimes I’m feeling kind of flatfooted if my faith has kind of plateaued. It challenges me to explain myself. I think it’s made me lean on and understand my own faith better and also to say sometimes I’m confused or ask why do I let my ego take over instead of trusting God. Those are day-to-day kind of things that come up in conversation with guys and that’s been worthwhile for me.”

He said his faith has been reinforced by witnessing veterans “open that conversation up with God again and seeing these fellows gain a sense of personal value because they are loved by God, no matter what.”

He recalls working with a Catholic veteran who struggled through terrible guilt from shooting civilians in Vietnam.

“He was raised Catholic and he didn’t go to church and he couldn’t go to confession, couldn’t go to Communion and we worked for a couple of years until he was ready to visit his parish priest,” said Kamps. Through the help of a religious sister at the parish, the veteran was able to go to confession.

“I would like to express my gratitude to that parish priest,” said Kamps. “He heard his confession and one of the things he asked him to do besides some prayers was to write a letter to each of the people that he felt guilty for shooting and personalize his apology and he did that and then he burned them.

“That veteran today is so involved in the Vietnam Veterans of America, he speaks to high school students about his experiences, he’s part of that patriot riders (who assist at veterans’ funerals) and he was a guardian for a World War II vet on an honor flight to Washington,D.C.,” said Kamps.

Helping veterans who struggle with survivor’s guilt has also been meaningful for Kamps. “To see them overcome those weights and knowing that the Lord is there to provide them with strength and unconditional love, that’s worth so much.”

The journey has been difficult for Kamps. He said he lost three Premontre classmates in Vietnam and “we’ve lost a couple of guys to suicide over the years.”

“But those who get over that hump and start getting reconnected, they are very grateful to get a chance to get away from that depression. So I couldn’t ask for a better experience as a social worker, as a veteran.”

Kamps said his decision to enlist, rather than be drafted, changed the course of his life. “I was assigned to a destroyer, I didn’t go into the country so I didn’t experience the combat that these guys did. But I came back with the sense of appreciation for serving, and as a social worker I learned some skills to communicate. I could interpret to the family what’s going on with the veteran and I could interpret between veterans what they needed to talk about and I could offer them tools for reducing anxiety.

“As I look back, I felt God kept me out of the Army or out of Vietnam, but he gave me enough of a connection with veterans and some skills to be kind of that go-between,” added Kamps.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_message]

Your Catholic Neighbor
Name: George Kamps
Parish: St. Agnes, Green Bay
Age: 68
Favorite saint: Francis of Assisi
Words to live by: “We all received God’s unconditional love and unique gifts and talents at birth. It is our responsibility to discover, develop and share our gifts/talents with others as long as we are able.”
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