Reducing spiritual injury

Team of chaplains to be honored for work with veterans

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. But the chaplains who work with veterans know better.


Ed Waldrop is one of them. He's part of a team of chaplains who work at the uptown division of Augusta's Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center.

Waldrop's usual day is a hectic blend of leading group therapy for soldiers adjusting to post-deployment, counseling individuals for substance abuse and mentoring resident chaplains. Like his colleagues, he's comfortable speaking the jargon of psychology, but his true lexicon is more transcendental.

He sums up their job like this: "We listen to the veteran's story, identify the lament, help them work through that and reduce the spiritual injury."

The quality and dedication of the Charlie Norwood pastoral care team has caught the attention of the Military Chaplains Association's National Executive Committee. In May, the team will be awarded the 2011 Distinguished Service Award. This year's award highlights chaplains making contributions to the care of wounded warriors.

"The Charlie Norwood ... pastoral care program stands out as a distinctive trendsetter in this regard," said Gary Pollitt, the executive director of the association's national executive committee.

The team's duties overlap in certain areas, but members have their specialities.

Benita Livingston works in the field of long-term care. Most of her patients are older veterans from the wars in Korea and Vietnam; many suffer from dementia.

Her job is less counseling and more comforting. She might be needed to coax a patient to eat or gently push someone to take his medication. She wards off loneliness with a friendly smile and open ear. Livingston's personality is such that she wants to fix, to help, but there's not much she can do for a veteran with dementia reliving the 1960s.

"Some take day trips (in their minds), so we just go with them," Livingston said. "I provide what care I can. But I've had to grow comfortable with just being silent."

The younger sailors, Marines and soldiers have their own issues. Waldrop assumed at the beginning of his tenure that many would be bitter toward God. To a certain extent that's true.

The combat veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress order, will talk about the things they have seen and done, then proclaim there is no God.

"There is brokenness," Wal-drop said. "(But) we take what we know about these kinds of things and build support to sustain them."

The troubles that follow veterans home go beyond the trials of war.

Back-to-back deployments of 12 months or more mean veterans are missing out on births, graduations, milestones and normal daily interaction with their families. That fosters a host of emotions, such as anger and guilt, that are purged through conversation.

Training new chaplains is Jan Hanson's area of expertise. The VA has several seminary residents who train under the chaplains. Many of them have the book smarts but aren't as knowledgeable in a clinical setting. The day's classes include improving their listening skills and masking their facial expressions, Hanson said.

Livingston learned in her clinical trials that sometimes her presence made a bigger impact than any words.

"Just to be there is providing more comfort than we really know," Livingston said.