VA Chaplain Ryan Wagers feels blessed to care for veterans

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2011

By Joanie Morris
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Chaplain Ryan E. Wagers, chief of Chaplain Services at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center, admits he fell into his passion by accident.
“I was pastoring at a Baptist church in Nashville,” Wagers said at his office at the VA. He has a master’s degree, but decided to get his doctorate. In the process of finding out what he needed to get that higher degree, he discovered he needed several units of clinical pastoral education — skills in counseling in a medical setting. The programs are generally run through the Veterans Association and secular institutions operated out of medical centers. “In Nashville, the CPE units were available at the VA”
Wagers describes the education as a marrying together of pastoral care with psychiatry and the medical environment. The idea is to address not only physical, emotional and mental distress at hospitals, but also spiritual distress.
“The whole person comes to the hospital to receive holistic care,” Wagers said. It’s not just parts of a person that come to a hospital. That patient can’t leave the spiritual part at home, he adds. “It isn’t just about physical scars, but emotional, spiritual and mental scars as well. It’s caring for the whole person.”
Wagers went through the 12-week program beginning in January 2000 and came out with a new understanding of what he was called to do.
“It pricked a place in my heart that hadn’t been pricked in a long time,” Wagers said of the 12 weeks he spent at the VA hospital in Tennessee. “I found a calling caring for veterans.”
Wagers put his doctorate on hold and began working more fully in the clinical pastoral care units at the VA. He took a one-year residency after his 12-week program was up, and for four years renewed the residency before taking his place among VA chaplains across the nation.
He gets emotional when talking about the blessing he has been given.
“It’s a wonderful thing to serve people who are willing to die for you,” he said, his voice breaking slightly as he talked about his job. “It’s a real blessing for me to be able to do that.”
Though he’s never served in the military, Wagers comes from a patriotic family. His father and grandfather both served in the Air Force, and his maternal grandfather served in the Army.
“This was kind of a way to say ‘Thank you’ to them as well,” Wagers said. Serving as a chaplain at the VA, he said, has provided him with so much more than he and his colleagues provide the veterans.
“I have found such a family here, no matter what station I go to,” he said.
A typical day for Wagers — and the other three chaplains who serve at the Salisbury VA Medical Center — begins by turning on his computer and fielding consultations. Consultations are requests from doctors and providers at the VA for a chaplain to see a patient.
One misconception some may have about the VA chaplains is that they are preachers.
“We are not preachers,” Wagers said. While they are religious men and women, their job isn’t to minister to those who ask for their services. “We are skilled spiritual care providers.”
His job, he said, is “to support the veteran in what brings meaning and purpose to their life.” This can be through their family, God, hobbies, pets and more. And all veterans have a priority list of importance, he says. And whether they believe in God or not, Wagers and his colleagues are there for them.
“Every VA chaplain in the nation does the same thing,” Wagers said. “Our ultimate goal is to support the veterans and our staff as they serve the veterans.”
His role on federal property is simple.
“Yes, I’m Baptist, but when I come on federal property, I support all veterans,” he said.
In addition to the many things a regular chaplain does — church and other religious services — a VA chaplain also serves on health care teams, works as a patient advocate, performs veteran family counseling, provides readjustment support for veterans coming back from overseas and runs support groups. They are not only at the hospital for the veterans. Staff members at the hospital can also take advantage of the services chaplains offer.
“They become family to the veterans,” Wagers said. When a veteran dies after spending years coming and going — or even living at the VA — staff members become bonded with them. “It’s not uncommon to see staff as grief-stricken as family because they’ve been caring for that veteran since they came home.”
All of these things combined give Wagers a sense of purpose at the VA and in his life. It was his “calling” and he didn’t even know it when he stumbled into it.
“You think about what you’re called to do,” he said. “It is so wonderful to be able to do what you love. It brings great meaning to my life.
“This is what I was supposed to do,” Wagers said, gesturing to the air around him. “I don’t want to waste anymore time from serving veterans. … I didn’t have to be a veteran to serve veterans.”
Joanie Morris is a freelance writer. She can be reached at 704-797-4248 or