VA chaplains part of 'remarkable work' being done for patients

Forty-six years ago Patrick J. Hopkins served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine hunkered down during the siege of the Khe Sanh base. His recall of the horror he experienced there led in recent years to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hopkins is being treated for cancer and for the symptoms of PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System's Jefferson Barracks Division in south St. Louis County. A big help for him is visits from Father Stuart King. As the nation celebrates Veterans Day on Tuesday, Nov. 11, Father King and other Catholic chaplains at the VA hospitals in St. Louis make a difference in the lives of veterans such as Hopkins.

Brutal battle

On Jan. 21, 1968, the North Vietnamese Army launched an attack, and the siege of Khe Sanh began. Fighting continued nonstop for the next 77 days in one of the most brutal battles of the war, marked by a massive artillery bombardment. Steady shellfire every day brought new casualties and tension as about 20,000 enemy soldiers surrounded the base.

Hopkins' regiment of U.S. Marines held its position, and the U.S. "won that battle," he said, noting that "very bad things happened there." He showed emotion discussing a patrol of 38 men that went out and only a handful returned. Five weeks went by before the bodies could be recovered.

He recalled the thousands of airstrikes, artillery mortars fired and more. A radio operator, he served in the Marines from 1966 to 1969, returning home from Vietnam in November of 1968. "I was lucky," he said. "I was never wounded, shot or anything. Shelled a lot."

He has tinnitus, the perception of sound in the ears or head where no external source is present, commonly referred to as "ringing in the ears" and caused by exposure to excessively loud sound. He traced his cancer to exposure to Agent Orange. The PTSD happened later in his life, perhaps triggered by documentaries he saw on the war, his cancer or the health concerns and deaths of those with whom he served in the war."I didn't lose an arm or a leg. Sometimes I feel guilty for that."

Later, he noted: "I'm just a guy who did his job."

Doctor of the Golden Gate

Father King prayed for Hopkins. They said the "Our Father," and the priest asked that Hopkins find peace, healing and a sense of God's presence. Father King also expressed thanks for the feelings Hopkins shared.
The patient nicknamed Father King, "the Doctor of the Golden Gate." Father King and other chaplains have "buoyed my spirits quite a bit," he said. "How wonderful it's been to have priests come to see me here and at (the other VA hospital) John Cochran. And laypeople from parishes have come out and given me Communion."

Hopkins also mentioned Father James Gray, a hospital chaplain who visited him while he was at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where he had surgery.

Hopkins is a member of St. Monica Parish in Creve Coeur,. where, as a child, he was an altar server. He ran a restaurant in Creve Coeur from 1975-91. He then was a car salesman before retiring in 2009. He has been caring for his 97-year-old mother, a devout Catholic, since then.

He had surgery for a brain tumor about seven weeks ago, but the cancer returned. He was at John Cochran before coming to Jefferson Barracks and said that the staff of the VA have "done amazing things and give so much of themselves. You'd think they're related to me."

His approach is to "put my faith in the Lord and try to come back from this," he said.

Support

As Father King entered the building to see Hopkins, a World War II veteran was getting a ride home after being discharged from the hospital. The man turned to the chaplain, thanked him for his visits and said, "I'll never forget you."

Earlier, a Vietnam veteran, Larry Rice, praised the priest and another Catholic chaplain. "Father has been there supporting me, praying for me," said Rice, a U.S. Army vet from Wichita, Kan. "When you need help, they're there for you."

Rice had surgery on his spine. He said he is recovering well and said the VA has done "remarkable work."
After Father King prayed with him and gave him a blessing, Rice smiled and said, "That's my daily jump-start."

Father King, a lieutenant colonel and wing chaplain in the Air Force Reserve with the 932 Airlift Wing at Scott Air Force Base, is the only full-time Catholic chaplain at the Jefferson Barracks and Chochran hospitals. Four priests of the Archdiocese of St. Louis serve part-time: Father George Brennan at John Cochran, Father John Schneider at Jefferson Barracks and Msgr. Kevin Callahan and Father Richard Rath at both hospitals. They serve with the endorsement of Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services.

"Being a priest at our VA hospitals is demanding, but extremely rewarding, particularly as we offer the sacraments of penance, anointing and the Eucharist to veterans at the end of their lives," Father King said. "We also sit with them and provide comfort and reassurance, as they prepare to die, and as they recover from various illnesses and other medical conditions. We celebrate Masses for veterans, their families and staff members six days each week in one of the two hospitals."

Fourteen Catholic volunteers, including several from St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish, assist as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Another volunteer transports patients who use wheelchairs to Mass at Jefferson Barracks. The volunteers have extensive training and get credentials with the VA every year.

Father King, who grew up in Michigan, was ordained in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, La., in May 2012. He is married and a convert, having first served in the Army and Air Force as a Protestant chaplain, beginning in 1994. He was the first married man to be co-sponsored by the military archdiocese as part of their co-sponsorship program for seminarians. (There have been married Roman Catholic priests since 1980, when the Church said that Protestant clergymen who became Catholic priests could stay married to their wives.) He lives in Queen of All Saints Parish in Oakville with his wife, Bettina, and three children, ages 10, 4 and 9 months.

Spirituality important

Rev. Robert Collingwood, chief of chaplain services for the VA St. Louis Health Care System, said that in the past 10 years a shift has been made to a holistic approach to patient care.

"Particularly with veterans, it's important that you look at their whole life," said Rev. Collingwood, a United Methodist clergyman. "The VA has taken the approach that one's spirituality is a part of that whole person. So they look at the physical, mental, psychological and spiritual as well. We are not here to convert anyone but to help them to tap into and use the spiritual resources they have."

Some veterans have what's called a "moral injury" when they are required in combat to do something that goes against their moral upbringing, or witness such acts. Chaplains are particularly helpful in dealing with those situations and helping the veteran heal.

Some veterans have attended chapel services and it brings a memory of a safe place, close to God.

"We have people who return to church after coming to the chapel for the first time in years," he said. "We're a bridge for them, getting them connected with spiritual or religious resources in the community."

For information on the VA chaplaincy, contact Rev. Collingwood at robert.collingwood@va.gov.

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