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Clergy play key role in veterans’ care

Spiritual advisers called crucial ‘first responders’ on mental health issues

By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2011

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Pastor Elizabeth M. Krentz-Wee says that as many as 10 of the 50 worshippers who attend Sunday services at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Norwich, Conn., are veterans.

But like many clergy, Krentz-Wee acknowledges that she has had little experience dealing with mental health problems that plague many of those who have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts.

Now, the military and psychiatrists are engaging spiritual leaders in the region, like Krentz-Wee, saying they are pivotal as first responders in helping soldiers and their families cope with issues like post-traumatic stress.

Though soldiers might refrain from seeing a military psychiatrist because of a stigma that seeking help suggests weakness, they may be comfortable approaching a clergy member, experts said. And reaching veterans sooner rather than later is imperative to recovery as they make the jarring transition from violent battle zones to quiet New England life.

“What [clergy] can do that we can’t is actually take the first and most important major step and see the person,’’ said Dr. John A. Fromson, associate director of postgraduate medical education at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Fromson led a recent conference in Boston, attended by some 100 religious leaders, doctors, and military chaplains, on how to help soldiers suffering from mental distress. The conference was sponsored by Home Base, an organization that serves the region’s soldiers and their families.

“In talking with vets, I find that the last person in the world they want to talk to is someone like myself,’’ Fromson said.

The effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks, emotional numbness, and isolation, can worsen if veterans delay seeking help, said Fromson, adding that such problems are normal responses to the “very abnormal circumstances’’ of war.

“You can be in the battle theater on a Friday and find yourself in your living room with your family on a Sunday,’’ he said.

Of the approximately 40,000 service members in New England who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, an estimated 12,000 of them are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or chronic pain, Home Base reports.

The Massachusetts National Guard has been trying to help clergy understand military issues through workshops around the state, said Guard Chaplain Paul Minor, who spoke at the Home Base conference. He said the military has long recognized spirituality as a component of resiliency.

Last month, Minor was on hand as soldiers just back from Afghanistan waited at National Guard headquarters in Milford for what the military calls “processing’’ - a series of paperwork and postcombat evaluations. Minor said he observed them from the edge of the room.

“They just look regular,’’ he said later, describing the scene. “But something’s got to be going on in their heads.’’

Minor said church leaders can provide the spiritual guidance and community support that medical professionals cannot - something Kimberly Potts, 48, the mother of two service members, can attest to.

“My experience was that if I didn’t have my faith community and I didn’t have my faith in God, I wouldn’t have made it through three deployments,’’ she said.

Potts sat on a panel at the Boston conference and talked of how her community at St. James Episcopal Church in Amesbury assisted her when her sons deployed to Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The 134 clergy members representing two dozen denominations grappled with questions about their role: Should they avoid judgment, given their generally pacifist beliefs? Is faith a useful crutch after a traumatic event, or should it be a constant presence in soldiers’ lives?

One answer, clergy members said they have found, is to focus on their role as impartial listeners, concentrating on soldiers’ anguish and not on diagnoses.

“It’s a privilege to hear their stories,’’ said Kathryn Zubin, a certified clinical chaplain from New York who attended the seminar. She said she found a calling in religious treatment for victims of trauma after Sept. 11, 2001, and later worked for a year at the 23d Street Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manhattan.

Fromson said he received positive feedback from clergy who said they better understand the worlds of military and medicine.

“Mental health and chaplaincy, we need to know each other’s language,’’ Zubin said. “I think the dialogue is not there. This is an attempt.’’

Krentz-Wee, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the conference gave her a new awareness of the circumstances of service members and particularly their families. She said she now understands that church leaders are first responders.

“We’re just not used to thinking of that term,’’ she said. “But we hear from people who are suicidal. I’ve been the first to hear from people who were getting divorced. And this is just in civilian culture. Both of those are classic examples of something that a vet or a family could be dealing with.’’

Ben Wolford can be reached at bwolford@globe.com.