This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Serving veterans in VA hospitals

Rod Deaton
For many Mennonites, military service remains off their radar. Few veterans attend Mennonite churches or Mennonite colleges.

Due to the dwindling number of those enlisted—less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, according to an NPR report—it may be even easier to avoid these individuals.

However, this relatively small number of people face big problems.

Each day about 18 veterans commit suicide. About one-quarter of returning veterans meet criteria for a mental health disorder. Many face unemployment, divorce, substance abuse and more.

Mennonites’ peace position complicates interactions and relationships with veterans. However, some Mennonites refuse to shy away from these difficult dynamics and actually work in a variety of positions at Veterans Health Administration (VA) hospitals all over the country.

Andrea Wetherald
Andrea Wetherald

As Andrea Wetherald, 24, says, “Jesus set an example of dangerous love.”

Wetherald administers the intervention for a smoking cessation research study at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and attends Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.
“Being a Mennonite at the VA has offered many opportunities for me to replace judgment with love,” she says.

There is no stereotype that will fit all veterans or one certain “type of person” who enlists in the military.

“I have met several [Muslim] veterans, transgendered veterans, many wealthy and educated veterans and even some pacifist veterans,” she says. “I have met veterans who are software engineers and nature-loving artists.”

“The best thing Mennonites can do is look through the stereotypes and see an individual—as cliché as it may sound,” she says.

Bernie Good
Bernie Good

Bernie Good, 55, also of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, has worked in the VA system since 1986. Good balances the tension between the system of the U.S. military and the individuals that serve in the system.

While he can’t celebrate the military complex, he can celebrate and support the people, says Good, chief of the section of general internal medicine.

“I do celebrate the VA, for many reasons unrelated to the military,” says Good, as the VA takes on military sexual abuse, offers substance abuse programs, reaches out to the homeless, provides low-cost or free health care to many who are dispossessed and more.

As a conscientious objector, Good struggled with taking a first job at the VA in Pittsburgh after his medical residency. However, after many conversations with his spouse, pastor and church members, he came to a place of certainty. He sent a letter to his church explaining his rationale, and the church affirmed his decision.

While some of the patients Good interacts with express patriotic, pro-military sentiments, many do not. One World War II veteran Good befriended told him that right after his marriage, he volunteered to serve. After landing in the South Pacific, he immediately began dodging bullets, and the reality of war hit him. Over the years, his beliefs evolved into pacifism.

“There are a surprising number of veterans who are proud of their service, but they’ve come to question war,” he says.

He says he is helping heal the wounds of those who have been affected by war.

“Although I cannot support the war effort, I am comfortable working with those who have volunteered for an activity I am unwilling to do.”

Like Good, Robert Martin of Lancaster, Pa., a primary care provider, faced a tension between his Anabaptist peace position and his former work in serving veterans.

Robert Martin
Robert Martin

Until 2011, Martin spent about three months working as a physician at each of the following VA clinic locations: Silver City, N.M.; Bangor, Maine; Gallup, N.M., and Asheville, N.C.

During these years, Martin sought the counsel of friends and those in his congregation, East Chestnut Street Mennonite, Lancaster. Last year he went to breakfast with Titus Peachey of Mennonite Central Committee and long-time peace advocate, to discuss his work in the VA system.

“There was a time when I thought that to work in the VA system meant to endorse war, but I’ve come to see that is not the case,” he says. “I feel a sense that God brought me there. I want to see each person as made in his image.”

While in Asheville, Martin learned that a Mennonite church regularly brought home-baked desserts to a facility for homeless veterans and visited with and supported the veterans.

“One needs to be nonjudgmental, but we don’t need to be apologetic about our position,” he says. “My experience of working in Israel for 18 years and experiencing three wars—in 1967, 1973 and 1991—gives me a background to discuss and share with veterans my peace convictions.”

Wade Ebersole, 33, wanted a position in a “closed socialized system that served a complex and often indigent population.” Ebersole is senior staff assistant to the director at the VA San Diego Healthcare System.

Wade Ebersole
Wade Ebersole

The mission-driven aspects of the organization impressed him, as well as the culture of service apparent among many of the professional staff.

“Many people who choose to work at the VA could be making more money elsewhere,” he says.

Ebersole describes the veterans he knows as “compassionate, passionate and generous.”

“The majority of my conversations with veterans about their service glorified the diplomatic portions of their jobs and the community and camaraderie that existed during their service,” Ebersole says.

Moreover, Rodney Deaton says no one likes war except the “powerful who benefit from it.”

Deaton is a psychiatrist who serves at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis and a member at First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis.

“Mennonites believe that we protect society in the long run when we avoid violence and seek peaceful solutions,” he says. “Combat veterans believe … that they protect society in the short run when they must use violence purposely—so that everybody, including Menno­nites, can have a long run at all.”

Rod Deaton
Rod Deaton

However, Deaton says, he believes that Mennonites who “live on the grid” must face the facts. “If we still have central air and the audacity to darken the door of a Starbucks, we owe our easy access to those amenities to many combat veterans,” he says.

Deaton hopes that Mennonites open themselves up to the possibility that they can passionately honor combat veterans and still hold true to their values.

“I can think of no more critical peacemaking project for the next 30 to 40 years than trying to bring whatever peace is possible into the hearts of [veterans],” he says.

Furthermore, Matthew Yoder, 35, a clinical psychologist, says many veterans did not join the military service for a “life of violence.”

“It was an honorable attempt at a better life,” he says, adding that many hoped to provide better for their family or get off the streets.

“My daily job is not about the U.S. government,” Yoder says. “I’m just helping people.” However, Yoder says, he is not certain if he could in good conscience treat active duty soldiers.
Yoder began work treating and researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in 2008. According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event.

Matthew Yoder
Matthew Yoder

As a psychologist, Yoder uses “prolonged exposure therapy” with his patients—widely considered an effective way to reduce PTSD symptoms, which include irritability, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and more.

During therapy, the patient gradually, systematically and repeatedly recounts the trauma. This aims to encourage the patient to evaluate the situation and understand they can safely return to the daily activities they were avoiding, according to a 2008 article in the American Psychological Association.

Along with exposure therapy, VA psychologists also use “cognitive processing therapy.” Philip Lehman, 44, says both therapies are deemed highly effective, based on empirical support.
Lehman has worked as a PTSD and Substance Use Disorder psychologist at the Salem Virginia Medical Center since 2009.

Cognitive processing therapy looks at the way individuals get “stuck in trauma,” says Lehman, 44. After traumatic experience, individuals often review the incident and think about ways they could have prevented the trauma. This often evolves into self-blame.

“It’s like reliving a sports game where something went wrong over and over,” he says. However, in these cases the memories involve death or injury. Over time, the trauma can alter one’s worldview in terms of trust of others, safety and more.

“Pushing away trauma symptoms is like pushing a beach ball under water,” Lehman says. “It is not a good long-term solution.”

Lehman says that often substance is used in pushing down the trauma memories and feelings.

Martin says that while medications can be helpful, they are only part of the treatment for PTSD.

“We are learning that PTSD is a ‘moral injury’ that comes from witnessing or doing things that are against one’smoral convictions,” he says.

Along with treatments, individuals need long-term communities of people that accept them and listen to their stories, according to Martin.

Fortunately, PTSD is treatable with the correct methods and is not a lifelong condition, as many assume, says Yoder.

“Knowing that 75 percent of the people who come into my office will leave after 10 to15 weeks, having significantly better relationships and lives, is the best part of my job,” Yoder says.
However, the rest do not respond to the treatment, and Yoder describes that as “heartbreaking.”

Thousands with PTSD never seek help, although the VA now screens for PTSD in most hospital visits. According to Mike Scotti’s May 27 article in the New York Times, the reasons for lack of treatment include the stigma of PTSD, shame or their lack of trust in the VA, a reality the VA continues to fight.

However, the VA’s reputation has improved over the years through better quality of care, the implementation of the patient-centered care model, advanced computerized medical records, renovated facilities and more. The 154 hospitals and 875 clinics run by the Veterans Affairs Department have been ranked best-in-class by a number of independent groups, according to a 2006 article in BusinessWeek online.

DraftChartSome Mennonites are a part of this improved system and, like Lehman, view their jobs as ways to serve others.

“Working here has strengthened my pacifist values,” Lehman says. “I see working with veterans as consistent with my pacifist beliefs, but I am not sure if working as an Army psychologist would be.”

When folks are in recovery from PTSD or substance abuse, they are often reconnecting to their community, family or church.

“That is congruent with my faith because I see people getting plugged back in, getting better and reconnecting with the values they lost,” he says. “I am not trying to convince people that war is wrong, but I am helping them heal from the realities of war.”

Additional resources from Mennonites involved with veterans

1. Eileen Ahearn attends Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church and works as a psychiatrist at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. Her article “Helping Those in the Hell of PTSD” ran in 2010 in The Mennonite.
2. Carolyn Holderread Heggen is a psychotherapist who delivered an address at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., in March on serving veterans. The transcript is available here online.
3. Rod Deaton attends First Mennonite Church of Indianapolis and is a psychiatrist at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis. He reflects on his experiences in his blog “Paving the Road Back.”

This article originally ran as a News Analysis on pages 44-46 of the Sept. 2012 issue.

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