VA Chaplain John Oliver cuts the web woven by rural pastors at a Department of Veterans Affairs sponsored training last week.
VA Chaplain John Oliver cuts the web woven by rural pastors at a Department of Veterans Affairs sponsored training last week.

As the military struggles to come to grips with high rates of suicide and mental illness among former soldiers, sailors and marines, the Department of Veterans Affairs is reaching out to religious leaders for help.

By Rose Hoban

More than 40 years after returning from Vietnam, Ronald Oberchain still gets choked up when he talks about the buddies he lost in combat. It took him decades before he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he doesn’t want this generation of veterans to wait that long.

Pastor James Pettus makes a point to a group of other pastors from rural churches throughout North Carolina and Virginia at a training sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs last week.

That’s why Obenchain attended a training for about 35 pastors from rural communities in North Carolina and Virginia last week, to help them care for the spiritual and mental health needs of veterans returning to their rural homes.

Forty-four percent of veterans return to rural areas, often far from VA services, according John Oliver, chief of chaplain services at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Durham.

More than half of those veterans returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan have been activated from the National Guard or the Reserves.

“Unlike previous wars where military troops would return together and go back to a military base, in these wars, when they’re deactivated they return to these communities,” said Jeni Cooke, from the National VA Chaplain Center.

“The support group that sustained them out of the country and in theater… that breaks up and they often get lost,” she said. “They don’t go back to military bases that are built to support military personnel, where there are resources.”

So, Cooke says, the VA is looking for ways to help rural communities cope with an influx of veterans.

According to Peter Tillman, a spokesman from the Durham VA Hospital, there are 23-25 million veterans in the country, but only 8 million of them are involved in the VA.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good for us to be the big, bad VA, bricks and mortar, and you come to us,” Tillman said. “Now, we’re going to you.”

Many rural vets, few rural resources

“We have research that shows that people are four or five times more likely to go to their pastors than to go to all other mental health providers, combined, when they have a problem,” said the Durham VA’s John Oliver.

“It’s easy to get in, easy to talk to somebody, they don’t have trouble with the parking lot, you don’t have to pay… access is a big issue,” Oliver said.

VA Chaplain John Oliver makes a point at a training for rural pastors sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, last week.

Oliver also said pastors often know the veterans in their communities and they know their families.

“Especially for African Americans. They’re much more likely to go to their pastor than a mental health provider and it’s even higher still for Asian Americans,” Oliver said. “There’s a cultural awareness that the pastor understands my culture and my situation, better than someone on the outside would.”

Female relatives are another reason veterans end up in the parsonage, rather than a doctor’s office.

“Their mother said, ‘go see the pastor’ and their grandmother said, ‘go see the pastor’ or their wife told them.” Oliver said.

But the problem, Oliver said, is that many pastors are more highly trained in scripture and theology, but have only rudimentary training in counseling. His goal is to train the pastors to refer people who are experiencing continuing distress to VA facilities for further help.

“They’re always the pastor, they’re not the psychologist,” Oliver said. “The pastor’s job isn’t to probe, it’s to say that God still loves you and offer forgiveness, offer some theological context to what they’re experiencing. And then refer.”

Web of meaning

About 40 pastors attended last week’s training, held at a church in Danville, Virginia.

Pastor Ronald Obenchain currently works at a small church nearby, just over the border from North Carolina. Seven of the 60 people in his congregation are veterans, and he sees his ministry to them as a special calling.

“There is an unspoken ‘band of brothers’ thing that happens among us,” he said.

Obenchain visited a VA hospital for the first time only four years ago to get help for his PTSD. Now he’s a convert.

“Part of my evangelical role is to promote to VA to other veterans, and encourage them to get involved,” he said. In the past few years, Obenchain has driven with reluctant congregants to visit VA facilities in Richmond and Durham.

“I want to encourage them to get involved,” he said.

But most pastors lack combat experience and cannot relate like Oberchain can.

“The people at my congregation encouraged me to come here,” said Danielle Hammett, an associate pastor at Spray United Methodist Church in Eden, North Carolina.

Hammett said there aren’t a lot of mental health services in her area, and the leaders at her church have had veterans and their families come to them for help. One member of her congregation just returned from Afghanistan, on his fourth deployment.

“We’ve had vets talk a lot about their senses – the loud sounds, the smells of certain things – as triggers for them,” she said. “They’re trying to renegotiate being in this society where the code is totally different.

“I want this to be of benefit for them,” Hammett said.

Oliver uses the training to give pastors without military experience an idea of what it’s like to come back after having experienced trauma. In one exercise, he stands pastors in circles, and has them hand around a ball of yarn after talking about something that helps them cope with stress. Before long the pastors weave a taut web.

Oliver asks each group what happens if they can no longer do the thing that helps them to cope, whether it be pray, walk in the woods, or talk to their best friend who may have been killed by an explosion. Then he cuts the web apart.

“This is what happens when someone experiences trauma,” Oliver said.

“The best predictor of someone doing well after coming home is having a solid community behind them,” Oliver said. “Pastors can take the initiative like no one else can to say, welcome back, do you want to sit down, and move people through this process of healing, loss, and reconnection.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...