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Priests and pastors offered training in Billings on how to help veterans cope with trauma

Billings Gazette - 9/19/2018

Sept. 18--Priests and pastors are often on the front line when it comes to military veterans seeking solace or guidance.

That's especially true in rural states like Montana, where mental health services may prove harder to find, said Tim Weidlich, clinical chaplain with the Montana VA Health Care System in Helena. But clergy may not understand the specific needs of vets who have experienced emotional trauma.

"The more we can train pastors, the more access veterans have to that kind of care and our chances of saving them or getting them the help they need will increase," Weidlich said.

That's crucial in a state where 1.5 out of 10 people, ages 18 and older, are veterans, which puts Montana among the top three in the U.S., he said.

"I tell pastors that's basically one person per row in their church," he said.

Helping clergy and counselors to effectively counsel vets is the idea behind the Community Clergy Training Program to support veterans in rural states. In a first for Montana, the pastoral care departments at St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic will team up with the Montana VA to offer a training on Oct. 3.

The daylong event is free and geared toward clergy, counselors and others who work with veterans. The event is open to the first 60 people who sign up, and the deadline is Sept. 28.

In an interview with Terry Hollister, chaplain and coordinator of ministry formation and pastoral education at St. Vincent, and Ramona Bruckner, chaplain at Billings Clinic, Weidlich talked about the need to truly understand veterans' often unspoken pain.

A pastor for 30 years, much of that time in Laurel and Billings, Weidlich recalled having veterans in his congregation, some who had returned from combat. He saw the emotional pain they battled and the stress it put on their families.

But having never walked in their shoes, Weidlich didn't truly understand their pain. He told of a World War II veteran he knew who would go outside every February and sit by the curb in a lawn chair.

"He wouldn't tell anyone what was going on inside, till he hit (age) 75," Weidlich said. "Then it was all he could do to talk about it."

Once his wife knew the reason for his actions, why some things triggered certain reactions in him, why he stuffed his grief instead of sharing it, it allowed her to understand and be a better support to him.

Some soldiers who have been in combat live with what Weidlich called "moral injury," where they've seen and done things in combat that they struggle with and don't know how to cope. They grapple with how to reintegrate with with loved ones, fearing if family members of friends heard their stories, they'd think the vet was a terrible person.

"It's not what's wrong with you, it's what happened to you," Weidlich said. "Hearing that frees up soldiers."

The morning session will focus on military culture and the wounds of war. The afternoon will include information on pastoral care for veterans and their families.

The event is interactive, said Weidlich, who will be teaching the sessions. After content is presented, participants will get time to take part in table discussions.

Up until now, Col. Ken DuVall, retired Montana National Guard chaplain, has conducted training sessions in the state with a handful of clergy at a time. This past spring, DuVall held a session for chaplains and other people serving in medical spiritual care settings.

Bruckner and Hollister both attended the retreat where DuVall spoke on how to most effectively work with veterans. It inspired Hollister to want to share that information with a larger audience.

"When people like Ramona and I saw the value of this as hospital chaplains, and when Tim floated the idea beyond hospitals into the community, connecting with clergy and counselors, it made a lot of sense to all of us," he said.

Hollister said from his perspective, it's helpful to understand how different the military culture is from civilian culture. He compared the culture shock veterans face with the experience of missionaries, who often struggle when they return home from living in another country.

"These are people who grew up in their church then they go to war -- and especially if they're exposed to active duty -- it's a whole different culture," Hollister said. "And when they come back, suddenly the culture seems very different."

Partnering with the community to reach veterans fits nicely into the hospital's vision, Hollister said.

"We provide better care and improve care when we partner together," he said.

Bruckner appreciated that the training went beyond caring for veterans to focusing on how veterans' trauma impacts their families.

"We know it affects them, but knowing how is helpful, as well as getting some suggestions of how to begin to try even to bridge that communication gap from one culture to another," she said.

The day will also include resources that are available in the community, Weidlich said. During a light lunch, as well as at other times, participants will learn more about what they can tap into to work with veterans.

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