On this Veteran’s Day, I wanted to share with you my reflection on working with Veterans in the Chaplain Service at a Veteran’s Administration Medical Center (VAMC) this past summer. I served as a Chaplain Intern in order to complete the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) requirement of my MDiv program, but I served intentionally at a VAMC rather than in a traditional hospital or nursing home context because, as a Veteran, my bond to these brothers and sisters drew me there.
This particular VAMC provides Veterans with services through Primary Care Clinics, Specialty Care Clinics, Outpatient Surgical Care, Mental Health Services, and Extended Care and Rehabilitation Services, including long term care in a Community Living Center (CLC). I was assigned as the Chaplain Intern for nearly forty Veterans residing in the Gero-Psychiatric unit of the CLC. The Veterans here were afflicted with a variety of mental illnesses such as PTSD, severe depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. In addition to having a mental illness diagnosis, some of these patients also had health issues requiring skilled nursing care, palliative, or hospice care.
During this program, I learned about a variety of mental illnesses, but this was just a brief introduction to this very complex field. This clinical experience was challenging for me because I had no prior experience in the field of mental health, but it was also exciting and intriguing for me because mental health issues have been drawing much more attention in recent years. I appreciated the opportunity to provide pastoral care to the Veterans, to be present with them, and to provide a listening ear to hear their stories. I also took a turn at talking with some of my patients who had end-stage dementia, who no longer seemed to have a voice to tell stories.
I thought my summer experience was particularly relevant as a Zygon Center story because I represented religion in a center of medical sciences, providing spiritual care where others provided care for the body. It is my experience that the VA truly values the role of Chaplains as a part of the interdisciplinary patient care team – the Chaplaincy department is a place where Religion meets Science. I participated in interdisciplinary patient care meetings with psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers, and the patient and/or guardian. During these meetings and in my daily interactions with the patients and staff, I learned about the patient’s mental illness from the perspective of medical science, and observed the impact of treatments. In my practice of Pastoral Care, I spent time with the Veterans, and the heard the thoughts, emotions, and needs which they chose to share with me. Some of these were related to their religious beliefs and spirituality, but just as often were not.
This was a fantastic experience, both as an education in pastoral care and as an important ministry for people who really wanted and needed someone to be present with them. Unfortunately, sometimes these Veterans have no one else to talk to. It is important to remember that sometimes Veterans are at a VA Medical Center or Veteran’s Home because they have no family, no one to care for them, no place else to go. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 12% of the total adult homeless population are veterans, 51% of homeless veterans have disabilities, and 50% of homeless veterans have serious mental illness.
Sometimes, Veterans are “the least of these”.