Role of VA Chaplains Is Varied and Changing

by Beth Griffin

Chaolain Photo
Voluntas Dei Father Andrew Sioleti, a Department of Veterans Affairs chaplain, visits with U.S. Army and Merchant Marine veteran Jose Garcia, and Garcia's daughter, Frances Rojas, at their residence in Brooklyn.

Catholics who minister to the nation’s military veterans help aging soldiers heal from past wars and support men and women trying to resume civilian life after multiple tours of duty in distant outposts.
They work alongside chaplains of many faiths, in multidisciplinary teams that treat the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wounds of people whose relationship with God may have been severely challenged by the sights of war.
Through it all, they strive to bring Christ into the world through their words, deeds and actions, “as imperfect as they are,” according to Voluntas Dei Father Andrew Sioleti.
He is the chief of the chaplain service and supervisor of chaplain training for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) New York Harbor Healthcare System.
Father Sioleti is responsible for 15 full- and part-time chaplains who serve patients at two veterans’ hospitals in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a long-term care facility in Queens and three clinics in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan.  They also visit homebound veterans.
In 2010, the chaplains provided individual spiritual counseling to more than 6,100 people and reached 7,700 others through spirituality and worship groups.
Among the more than 50,000 patients served each year by the New York Harbor Healthcare System, Father Sioleti said the largest group is Vietnam-era veterans. There also are veterans of the Korean conflict and the Second World War.
He said the fastest-growing and most diverse group is returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are seeking help with substance abuse and mental health issues, Father Sioleti said in an interview with Catholic News Service.
“There are younger folks, in their 20s and early 30s, who served two and three tours and there are folks in their 40s, who joined the Reserves and ended up on active duty. We see parents bringing in their adult children as patients and we have veterans coming in for treatment with little children in tow. The staff is getting used to accommodating five-year-olds,” he said.

“There is a misperception that chaplains run around anointing patients and praying with them,” Father Sioleti said. “Even if they ever existed, those days are gone.”
“We respect each person’s spirituality and religious experience. There is a big push in the government to recognize veterans’ fundamental rights to request any spiritual or religious rituals.”
Father Sioleti said chaplains counsel and can conduct religious services, but do not proselytize. When he celebrates daily Mass at noon in the hospital’s nondenominational chapel, volunteers install a large wooden crucifix and set the altar. The faithful in actual attendance are a fraction of those participating via closed-circuit television from patient rooms.
The priest supervises a multifaith clinical pastoral education training program, he said, which blends psychology and religion and is the only one established at a veterans’ hospital in New York. Participants include Catholic seminarians in summer sessions and yearlong residents preparing for full-time healthcare chaplaincy. He said recent graduates came from Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal, Muslim, Quaker, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist traditions.
The program is one of 20 at VA facilities and is accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. Father Sioleti said its purpose is to train chaplains to minister to people of “all spiritualities and religious backgrounds.”
Mercy Sister Maureen Mitchell, the program’s director, said: “The training is multifaith, b

ut we want everyone to be deeply rooted in their own tradition.”
“We train students to do spiritual assessments on patients to understand what their journey has been. Many of our veterans were raised in religions with traditional talk of a loving God,” she told CNS. “War challenges that image of God and we help our students to understand the veteran’s journey and be willing to listen to reasons why someone has given up their tradition or may be searching.”
Sister Mitchell said she has changed in the year since she transferred from a similar job in a civilian hospital to the veterans’ health care system. “I know I’m different and the experience itself has been the education – just walking in every day and seeing the sign over the door. It reads, ‘The price of freedom is evident here,’” she said.
Father Ivan Tykhovytch is a full-time pastor at Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brooklyn and part-time veterans’ chaplain whose experience as an Army chaplain on active duty in Iraq helps him relate to the men and women he counsels.
(During an 18-month deployment in Iraq, he was the only Catholic chaplain for the First Marine Division, then served the 82nd Airborne in Ramadi and also ministered to coalition forces from Ukraine, who were pleasantly surprised to find a chaplain of their rite.)
He said the returning soldiers are comfortable, feel safe and can be themselves in a veterans’ facility, knowing they won’t be judged or stereotyped.
According to John Schlager, archdiocesan general counsel, there are 232 active duty military chaplain priests and approximately 300 full- and part-time chaplain priests serving in veterans’ facilities.
Father Sioleti was born in Italy and ordained as a Conventual Franciscan in his mother’s hometown in Greece. While studying in the U.S. and serving in a New Jersey parish, he was drawn to explore ministry in a secular institute, which includes priests and married couples. In 2000, he transferred to Voluntas Dei, a pontifical institute based in Quebec.
Before he joined the VA in 2001, he held a similar position at the now-closed Cabrini Hospital in Manhattan.
In an ideal world, he said, his administrative duties would allow more time for visits with veterans.
Jose Garcia was an Army sergeant in World War II and Korea. Now 90 years old and bedridden, he looks forward to seeing a VA chaplain in the Brooklyn home he shares with his daughter, Frances.
She said, “It gives him a high spirit to be with the chaplain, make confession and receive Communion. Our local parish is up to its neck with elderly people and has no one to send to him.”