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VA Training Helps Clergy Minister To Vets

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When military service members return home from war, many aren't comfortable talking to a spouse or friends about their experience. And that can mean they turn to their church pastor. The Department of Veterans Affairs says clergy are especially important in rural areas, where it can be harder to seek help for mental health issues. Brenna Angel, of member station WUKY, reports on a program that helps train clergy how to minister to veterans.

BRENNA ANGEL, BYLINE: The city of Somerset, Kentucky - population, around 11,000 - is home to a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA medical center is an hour and a half away. Officials with the Veterans Health Administration chose Somerset as the site of a recent workshop geared toward clergy in small towns. Chaplain Jeni Cook oversees the program.

JENI COOK: The VA wants veterans who live in rural communities to have the same quality and quantity of health care as those who live in urban areas.

ANGEL: Cook says religious leaders are often the first choice for veterans to talk with about readjusting to civilian life. They are familiar, and the service members trust their information won't go directly into a medical file. Religious beliefs, and the realities of war, can be difficult for clergy to balance.

Ed Bialon signed up for the VA seminar. He's minister of Cumberland Church of Christ, and chaplain at a local hospital.

ED BIALON: And I am dealing with two veterans from church that are really suffering. I can't say, exactly, it's the post-traumatic syndrome, but they definitely have some situations that are pulling them away - and isolating themselves.

ANGEL: The clergy training program focuses on understanding the perspectives of veterans who have experienced trauma. Bialon says he's troubled to see how war has affected his parishioners.

BIALON: I see them coming back, and their personalities have changed - not attending church, actually living in a lifestyle that was contrary to what they understood.

ANGEL: Joe White is a provisional elder with the United Methodist Church in Berea, Kentucky, and going through his own community reintegration. He recently returned from a 12-month deployment to Kuwait, as a captain with the Army Reserves.

CAPT. JOE WHITE: You kind of expect things to go on, kind of how they were before. And there's been changes, you know. I've grown and changed, and my family's grown and changed.

THE REV. JOHN OLIVER: The pastor really needs to not be afraid to delve into the deep questions of existence. Who am I now? What is my life purpose after having been at war?

ANGEL: Rev. John Oliver is chief of chaplain services at the VA Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. He tells pastors at the workshop that being supportive doesn't mean having all the answers.

OLIVER: If you can listen to a veteran, and their spouse, without judgment or without anxiety or without trying to fix their problems, you have given them a phenomenal gift that will last a lifetime.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here, here.

ANGEL: Workshop participants discussed possible outreach efforts and Scripture verses that could be used in ministering to veterans. Oliver says clergy should not try to push for intimate details of a deployment, but the chaplain stresses the importance of encouraging veterans to seek out mental health professionals when needed.

OLIVER: The more we talk about it, the less stigma will be involved; the more likely our veterans will get the help that they need, that's ready for them and that's available to them.

ANGEL: The majority of clergy attending the VA's rural training workshops have been from the Christian faith, but organizers say it's open to all religious beliefs. The program is applying for more funds for next year, and organizers hope to expand the effort across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Brenna Angel in Somerset, Kentucky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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