Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
VA Partners with Local Clergy in Rural America
Statistics show that Veterans are five times more likely to seek support from their own clergy than all other mental health care providers combined.
Due to that fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is forming partnerships with clergy in rural parts of the country to help clergy better understand the needs of Veterans and to educate clergy about the resources that the VA can provide.
On Sept. 16, the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, Okla. hosted more than 70 local clergy for a day long educational event called Building Partnerships: Caring for Veterans' Needs.
The event, sponsored by the VA Office of Rural Health and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) National Chaplain Center, combined the efforts of the local VA medical center staff, Office of Rural Health, National Chaplain Center, and included trainers from the National Center for PTSD.
The initiative gave clergy a basic understanding of the challenges that Veterans who have deployed overseas face, especially Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) Veterans.
"While some people may seem the same as they get back, they might not run into problems right away," said Dr. John Oliver, Chief of the Chaplain Service at Durham VA Medical Center and a trainer for the event. "Pastors can keep an eye out for some of the basic things that happen to folks like not being able to sleep very well, alcohol and drug use, depression, and a hyper vigilant sort of reactions to events."
Trainers also educated clergy about VA services and instructed clergy on when and how to refer a Veteran to the VA.
"We want them to know that there are people who are trained and have the time and expertise, and are using evidence based therapies to support our Veterans," said Oliver. "That helps the pastor understand that they don't have to be all things to all people and they can let go of some of this. They're a vital part of the team, but they're not the whole time team."
VA staff also helped clergy conduct an assessment of the resources they have to support Veterans in their own denominations.
"There are a variety of things that local churches could do if they wanted to focus a ministry on Veterans," said Dr. Jeni Cook, Associate Director of the VHA National Chaplain Center. "We're not telling them how to do ministry in their congregations, but we are going to ask them if they have ongoing programs that Veterans could benefit from or if they have enough Veterans in their community where they could start something specifically for Veterans, such as a support group."
The VA Office of Rural Health and VHA National Chaplain Center has also sponsored educational events at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System East Campus in Tuskegee, Alabama, Kerrville VA Hospital in Kerrville, Texas, and the Fargo VA Medical Center in Fargo, N.D.