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Clergy training designed to help NH veterans reintegrate

Sunday News Correspondent

July 01. 2017 10:12PM
Veterans display their colors during the annual Freedom Ride and Vigil at Hesky Park in Meredith during Motorcycle Week. (Bea Lewis/Sunday News Correspondent)

LACONIA - Returning veterans are getting some help from above.

Genesis Behavioral Health and the Veterans Administration are partnering to train clergy to recognize the challenges faced today by servicemen and women, active or retired.

The challenges of reintegration, coupled with issues that may be linked to their service, can result in problems that go unrecognized or develop slowly over time, said Ann Nichols, director of Development and Public Relations for GBH.

"Our role is to teach clergy and designated lay people how to play such an important role. It's a really nice partnership with the VA to have the opportunity to be able to do this," Nichols said.

"The military culture is so ingrained in our soldiers and competes with other things we know in life it doesn't surprise me that there are challenges. It's important to remove the stigma and to be able to have a positive impact on veterans and their families."

When issues become critical, veterans are most likely to seek information and support from people they know. Many veterans seeking mental health support start with their local clergy and members of the faith community, Nichols said.

GBH regularly works with the VA medical centers in Manchester and neighboring Vermont because they serve the same clients. While the state's 10 community mental health centers have previously had a military liaison to help active and retired military navigate the complexities of the VA health care system, those positions were not funded in the latest state budget.

The training was developed in recognition that veterans returning to rural, small-town areas have limited choice for health care. Clergy and members of their respective parishes or congregations offer an important contact point for veterans in their hometowns. The National VA Chaplain Center joined with VHA Office of Rural Health to offer training to provide clergy and faith community members with the tools they need when a veteran seeks their aid.

Approximately 115,000 veterans live in New Hampshire. A third are from the Vietnam Era, and more than 48 percent are 65 years of age or older, compared with 15 percent of the civilian population. The second largest group of veterans is from the Gulf Wars, with more than 7,000 coming from post-9/11 service. Only 30,000 of the 115,000 use the VA Medical Center, according to the state Bureau of Community Based Military Programs.

New Hampshire veterans identified stigma as the leading barrier to accessing health care, citing feeling embarrassed or ashamed of their needs as well as their perception that providers did not understand them.

Veterans believe that a lack of understanding will result in stereotypes, pathologized interactions, misunderstanding, and over-glorification or negative judgments about their identity and experiences, according to the information provided by the N.H. Commission on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumaic Brain Injury.

As the majority of medical providers in the state have no military background or minimal exposure to military culture, similar training programs have been offered for health care professionals, said Lt. Col. Gregory Heilshorn, public affairs officer for the New Hampshire National Guard.

"Clergy are typically on the front lines of helping veterans and it is not usual for them to be one-on-one dealing with specific issues. This event will help give clergy who don't have any direct connection with the military a better understanding of what vets are facing when they return from deployment," said Heilshorn.

Kindred training, he said, has been offered for law enforcement, to help them understand some of the issues returning service members may be coping with.

The VA Office of Veterans Experience and GBH of Laconia, have partnered with the Manchester VA Medical Center, the White River Junction VA Medical Center, the VHA Office of Rural Health and the National VA Chaplain Center to deliver three training programs this month. Fifty people have already registered to attend, Nichols said.

 Sessions will be held at Lambs Chapel, 214 School St., Berlin, on July 18; at the Congregational Church of Laconia, United Church of Christ, 18 Veterans Sq., Laconia, on July 19 and at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, 207 Hemlock St., Manchester, on July 20.

"The training is good and will educate clergy about the many unique challenges of the military. Knowing some of that will keep people from saying dumb stuff upfront that could cutoff any relationship," said Steven Veinotte, a National Guard Chaplin and 14-year Reservist. 

Training topics will include military culture and the wounds of war and potential roles of clergy while assisting with veteran care. Mental health services and referrals will also be discussed to include specific information on making referrals to VA mental health care and community mental health services.

Everyone experiences deployment differently as each branch of the military has its own duties said Veinotte, who is pastor of the River of Grace Church in Hampton.

"Everyone can't be painted with the same brush, and we need to be able to recognize the effect individually," said Veinotte, who spent a yearlong deployment in the Middle East with the 197th Field Artillery Brigade.

Some veterans who experience difficult deployments adjust just fine when they return home, yet others who may have not seen combat have difficulty.

"It's quite a cross-cultural experience," Veinotte said, of the transition from military to civilian life. Leaving a heavily regimented system where your singular focus is doing your job, to the multiple freedoms of civilian life can be daunting.

"Your equilibrium is impacted. It's what gets you through (the deployment) and you're looking forward to going home. But it's a bit much to have all those choices. It's a challenge," he said.

Ed Drury, military liaison and special projects for GBH credited Ben Kale of the Veterans Experience Office for spearheading the initiative.

"He went door to door to all the churches in the North County," Drury said.

There is no cost to participate in the training and if a clergy person is unable to attend, clergy-in-training and laypeople from the faith community are encouraged to come. Check-in will begin at 7:30 a.m. The programs run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch will be provided.

Clergy may register or ask questions regarding the events by contacting either Ben Kaler, Veterans Experience Office,, or (603) 722-5843 or Ed Drury, Genesis Behavioral Health, or(603) 524-1100, ext. 157.

Genesis Behavioral Health GBH is a private, nonprofit designated by the state as the community mental health center serving 24 municipalities in Belknap and southern Grafton counties.  Last year, GBH served 3,976 children, adults and families and provided $789,549 of care.

Found in 1966, GBH provides comprehensive, integrated mental health treatment for people living with - and recovering from - mental illness and/or emotional distress.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 603-524-1100 or visit the website at

Find Genesis Behavioral Health on Facebook and follow them on Twitter for updates and information.

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