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Veterans find hope through chaplain training graduates

A letter arrived at the chaplain's office at the Veterans Affairs hospital addressed from Martin Wilson, a distressed veteran in the county jail on March 2010.

Wayne Hull, then a new student of the Utah Clinical Pastoral Education program, answered the call and immediate made his way to the jail.

The prisoner wept when Hull arrived.

"You came," Wilson said as he wept.

Wilson is one of many troubled veterans aided by the recent graduates of the Clinical Pastoral Education program. Their graduation was held in the VA Hospital Chapel on Thursday. The graduates represented various faiths, including Jewish, Native American, Latter-day Saint and Roman Catholic.

The four-year-old program is an interfaith and interdisciplinary professional training for prospective chaplains, according to the CPE website

The graduates endured writing approximately 500 pages of clinical documentation and accumulated 1600 supervised clinical hours, and they do it for free.

"There is a lot of book work that has to be done and a lot of writing," Rebecca Loper, one of the graduates representing the Latter-day Saints, said. "But, a lot of it is discovering who you are and how you can best help other people."

Loper shared her gratitude for the training program as part of the graduation services. She described her training as "an experience of the heart" and a place where she "learned how to minister to others."

The services included a ceremony where the hands of each graduate are blessed. Each rising chaplain washed their hands and was blessed by Father L. Gally, one of the program's first graduates in 2008.

"May your hands bring comfort and promote healing to all who come into your care," Father Gally said as he blessed each graduate's hands.

The Rev. Dr. Esteban Montilla, President of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, spoke after the ceremony.

He recited the biblical story of Lazarus and described the burial process during that time. When Lazarus came from his tomb, his bandages had to be removed by Christ's disciples. He explained that the job of a chaplain is loosing figurative bandages that restrain veterans.

Hull, who received a CPE certificate at the graduation, worked with Wilson during his training. He petitioned the judge to allow Wilson to come to the VA where he received substance abuse rehabilitation.

"It's changed my life," Wilson said. "It's given me a new start at life. Everyday I look at better things to come."

Wilson wasn't the only person affected by the experience.

"He changed my life as much as I changed his," Hull said. "I found out that when I utilize the skills I have learned here at the VA I can actually change someone's life."

Unlike the other 33 programs in the country, the CPE in Utah has saved the government more than $1 million over the past four years because their chaplains are volunteers. The trained chaplains out of the program have had approximately 40,000 ministry encounters with patients, which adds up to about 36,000 ministry hours "all at no cost to the government," said Marks Allison, supervisor over CPE and state chaplain for the Utah National Guard.

Ironically, although the program has aided many veterans in the area, there is, according to Allison, a chance the program could be terminated.

"It's very economical, and that's a win for everybody," Allison said. "We're hoping the VA will keep the program because it's definitely made a difference in people's lives."

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