Veterans—especially those in rural areas—are receiving added attention through a VA program focused on training clergy and other groups interested in helping Veterans.
More than two dozen trainees met Jan. 30 in Medora, North Dakota, for the Community Clergy Training Program to Support Rural Veterans Mental Health.
VA chaplains use four modules to teach trainees best methods to help Veterans, said VA Chaplain and Army Veteran Joe White.
The program is open to community clergy and anyone interested in helping Veterans, such as local members of Veteran Service Organizations, Caregivers and community-based mental health providers. Religious leaders are often the first people Veterans turn to for help, especially in rural areas, said White.
The state chaplains for North Dakota and the American Legion were among those who attended the Jan. 30 event. One person traveled nearly 400 miles for the training.
Army Col. Darcie Handt is executive director for ND Cares, a North Dakota coalition that brings together more than 40 groups. They work to improve collaboration and coordination on behavior health services for service members, Veterans, families and survivors.
Handt said the tools attendees learned will help because of North Dakota’s sparse population. Veterans often travel great distances for any type of care. He said because of this, community partners play a large role in helping Veterans.
Father Brian Gross was one of the attendees. He is the pastor of Epiphany Catholic Church in Watford City, North Dakota. The town of 10,000 draws a large Veteran population because of the oil field work nearby.
“This training helps to identify and recognize what’s going on in the heart and mind of a soldier that’s coming back,” he said. He said the information helps build awareness so when he meets with a Veteran, he will know how to help the person better reintegrate.
Another pastor from a town near Minot Air Force Base said the training will help as she counsels Veterans transitioning.
“I know that I don’t have all the answers, but have a list of resources,” said Pastor SueLynn White from Oak Valley Lutheran Church in Oak Valley, North Dakota. “This will help me walk with them and the (mental health) professional to give another layer of help.”
The training program currently has four modules.
The first module is Military Culture and Wounds of War. In this session, trainees learn about the military culture and injuries Veterans may have, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma. Trainees also learn how to assist military personnel and their families with a healthy adjustment to a civilian culture, along with ethical and moral injuries unique to combat Veterans.
Pastoral Care to Veterans and Their Families is the second module. This training discusses the spiritual side of caring for Veterans.
The third module is Mental Health and Referrals. Trainees learn the best ways to support Veterans’ mental health and how to make referrals so Veterans receive follow-up care.
Building Community Partnerships is the fourth module. Since a Veteran may need assistance in multiple areas, trainees learn how to work with partners to establish a network to help.
The program started in 2010. In 2017, the Veterans Experience Office held 13 events for 300 clergy during a pilot phase in the New England area, said Ben Kaler, a Marine Veteran and Veterans Experience Office field consultant. The program now covers all 50 states, with 17 trainers splitting up geographic areas. The vast majority of these trainers are Veterans themselves.
Army Veteran Barry Main, senior chaplain for Messages of Faith Ministry in Nevada, attended two days of training, which he said helped build networks and partnerships.
“It’s going to give those of us who want to help Veterans more tools to use,” the Vietnam Veteran said. “Handling Veterans is a little different. This program went a long way in helping us help others.”
Chaplain Ryan Creelman, who also attended the training with Main, said the program is spurring development of a Veteran care committee to serve Veterans.
Engaging rural communities
Funded by Office of Rural Health, the program tries to reach the nearly five million Veterans who reside in rural communities. Veterans choose rural communities for a variety of reasons: closer proximity to family, friends and community; open space for recreation; more privacy; lower cost of living; or less crowded towns and schools. While Veterans may enjoy the benefits of rural living, they may also experience rural health care challenges that are intensified by combat-related injuries and illnesses.
In rural areas, basic levels of health care or preventative care may not be available to support residents’ long-term health and well-being. Compared to urban areas, rural communities tend to have higher poverty rates, more elderly residents, residents with poorer health, and fewer physician practices, hospitals and other health delivery resources.
Just like any rural resident, it may be difficult for rural Veterans and their caregivers to access health care and other services due to rural delivery challenges, including:
- Hospital closings due to financial instability
- Fewer housing, education, employment and transportation options
- Greater geographic and distance barriers
- Limited broadband internet
- Higher uninsured rates
- Difficulty of safely aging in place in rural America
To find upcoming events, see the National VA Chaplain Center page at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/the-national-va-chaplain-center-16550545479.