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Witness Testimony of Chaplain Michael McCoy Sr., Associate Director, National Chaplain Center, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud, and Members of the Subcommittee:  thank you for the opportunity to speak about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Chaplain Service's outreach efforts with community- and faith-based organizations.  As an Associate Director of VA’s National Chaplains Center and a past President of the Military Chaplains Association of the United States of America, I have had the opportunity to engage first-hand with community and faith-based organizations.

My testimony today will provide an overview of three programs:  the VA National Chaplain Center’s Veteran Community Outreach Initiative (VCOI); the marriage enrichment retreats; and the “Heal the Healer” program.  VA chaplains have created these initiatives to collaborate and build bridges between VA, the faith-based communities, and neighborhood leaders to aid in the spiritual care of our returning Veterans and their families.

VA National Chaplain Center’s Veteran Community Outreach Initiative (VCOI)

In 2007, the VA National Chaplain Center started the VCOI to educate community clergy about the spiritual and emotional needs of our returning Veterans and their families.  Nationwide, VA chaplains have conducted over 200 training events and provided education to approximately 10,000 clergy through this effort.  As a result, clergy across the Nation are learning to:

1.      Identify readjustment challenges that Veterans and their families face following deployment;

2.      Identify psychological and spiritual effects of war trauma on survivors;

3.      Consider appropriate pastoral care interventions for the spiritual and theological issues that Veterans and families often encounter;

4.      Brainstorm ideas for a community clergy partnership between VA chaplains and local clergy; and

5.      Refer Veterans to local VA health care facilities by being a trusted and knowledgeable resource for Veterans to use to connect with VA. 

In 2011, VA’s National Chaplain Center made available to the Chaplain Services in VA’s 152 medical centers clergy training materials, program brochures, curriculum and slides, and DVDs on spirituality. These materials were presented to local clergy for use as resources to support returning Veterans and provide information on referring Veterans and their family members to local VA medical centers, community-based outpatient clinics, Vet Centers, and other related resources. 

Marriage Enrichment Program

Our marriage enrichment program began in February of 2009 and was initiated by the Chaplain Service at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, GA.  This program was developed based on concerns over the large number of stressed marriages experienced by our returning Veterans; these stresses often led to family crises and divorce.  For example, in June 2005 an article in the USA Today stated, “The number of active-duty soldiers getting divorced has been rising sharply with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. The trend is severest among officers.  Last year, 3,325 Army officers’ marrages ended in divorce—up 78 percent from 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, and more than 3 and 1/2 times the number in 2000, before the Afghan operation, Army figures show.  For enlisted personnel, the 7,152 divorces last year were 28 percent more than in 2003 and up 53 percent from 2000.  During that time, the number of soldiers has changed little.”  

Centered on the theme, “Getting It Back: Reclaiming Your Relationship after Combat Deployment,” the program is designed so that married couples can develop healthy ways of interacting and relating with one another.  We have discovered that all too often, the spouse who has gone to war and returned may have physical, emotional, or spiritual wounds that have not yet healed.  On the other hand, the spouse who was not deployed also needs support, understanding, and relief from the stress of trying to maintain some kind of normalcy at home.  Family and friends mean well as they try to offer support, but they often do not understand what the couple is experiencing.  This program use material from the Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills (PAIRS) Foundation to help couples address these issues.  The program focuses on topics such as constructive conflict resolution, emotional literacy, and communication and intimacy in stressful situations.  Facilitators spend an average of 17 hours working with the couples over a 2.5 day weekend.  Two VA chaplains developed this ministry by using community resources and collaborating with local organizations to sponsor these programs.  The community leaders and faith-based volunteers, collaborating with VA chaplains, have contributed in making the programs a success.  More information, including some best practices for the program, is available online at:  www.va.gov/chaplain.

Heal the Healer

In August 2008, VA’s National Chaplain Service introduced the “Heal the Healer” program for our returning National Guard and Reserve chaplains.  Some of these chaplains have served multiple deployments.  After realizing that several were experiencing trauma from their experiences overseas, we developed a program designed to:

1.      Help those returning from deployment in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn (OEF/OIF/OND) as military reserve chaplains be assured that the chaplain community at home cares about them and their families;

2.      Provide chaplains returning from deployment as military reserve chaplains in OEF/OIF/OND with the opportunity to share openly their experiences and emotions associated with their deployment;

3.      Meet other chaplains with similar experiences from the theater of operations;

4.      Provide an educational awareness of combat operational stress and how to deal with it;

5.      Build a network for military reserve chaplains who were deployed in support of OEF/OIF/OND and a support system upon which they may call;

6.      Provide a realistic review of lessons learned; and

7.      Gain insight on how we may intervene in the future to provide appropriate and timely care for our chaplains returning from combat zones.

The stories and tears that are shared in these sessions reinforce the importance of our ongoing role to support the chaplains who have worn our Nation’s uniform.  These men and women have voluntarily placed themselves in harm’s way to provide the full range of ministry for our warriors.  In caring for our Veterans, they too have changed.  Some also bear the wounds of war.  Chaplains fill a vital role, and we must be prepared to help those who assist others in the process of spiritual healing.  VA chaplains, in partnership with local clergy, our faith group endorsers, and community faith group leaders, work together to reach out and offer support to returning chaplains and their families. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, these three programs develop community partnerships and work with faith-based and community organizations to bring attention to the needs of our Veterans and their families.  Today, we understand better the evils and horrors of war that can afflict them.  We recognize that their service-related experiences can cause deep wounds to the spirit, conscience, and soul.  Chaplains, community clergy, and communities of faith can make a great difference in helping to heal our warriors and the families who love them.

Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my prepared statement.  I am prepared to answer your questions at this time.