How Can Veterans Heal from Moral Injury?

Harvey MorrisPodcast

Transcript of Road Home Program: The Podcast, Episode 5

A soldier before he went to seminary, Road Home Program Staff Chaplain Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig shares how his military service is directly useful in his current role to enable recovery of the mind, body and spirit.

Will Beiersdorf, Executive Director at The Road Home Program at Rush: Good day, everybody. I’m Will Beiersdorf. I’m the Executive Director of the Road Home Program here at Rush. And for those that are just joining us, this is the podcast, the Road Home Podcast. And today, we’re, we have the honor and privilege of having Mark Schimmelpfennig, who is our chaplain. He’s also referred to as Chaps. So I want to welcome, Chaps, to the Road Home Podcast.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig, Staff Chaplain at The Road Home Program at Rush: Thank you, Will. Glad to be here.

Will Beiersdorf: We’re grateful to have you. I know you’re busy, there’s a lot going on. So, we’ll kind of jump right into it. But I just want to take a moment for those folks just joining us again, the Road Home Program at Rush is a veteran service member and family center helping these individuals dealing with traumas, whether they experienced them, you know, in their service, or, you know, in life. And we talk about those traumas as being PTSD, known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, military sexual trauma, we refer to it as MST. We also help folks that have had traumatic brain injuries, you know, so we keep the TBI services we provide, and a whole host of other things centered around those invisible wounds of war in life. And, again, I’ve asked Chaps to join us today to talk a little bit about some of those programs. But I want, I want Chaps to share a little more about some of the things that you’ve heard in the community about moral injury. And as much as we try to help individuals that are battling those traumas, you know, that are dealing with in their mind, I want Chaps to talk about things that are going on in a man or woman’s or individual’s, you know, heart or soul. And so that’s where we get into that. And so we’re grateful to have Chaps with us again, being the chaplain here at the Road Home Program. So. So, Chaps, can you take a few minutes, tell us, tell the community about yourself and who you are, what you’ve done. And then also, what do you do here at the Road Home Program?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Thanks, Will. Well, my name is Mark Schimmelpfennig. I’m a veteran. I have PTSD. My drug of choice was alcohol. And I know what gunmetal tastes like. That’s how I introduce myself to the men and women who come into our program. So, yes, I’ve been on my own Road Home, too. I was a soldier before, before I went to seminary. I am a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary. And I’ve done my chaplain, chaplain internships at both Northwestern Hospital and Rush University Medical Center. And when, when I was going through seminary, I originally thought I was going to be a congregational minister. But then once I started clinical pastoral education, which is a chaplain internship, my whole focus changed. Being able to meet people wherever they might be, and leaving a lot of the, shall we say, dogmatic baggage out in the hall, when you’re going in to see a patient or patient’s family, that really, really resonated with me and I’ve never looked back. And, as you know, what was it about five years ago now? A colleague of mine here at Rush had said, “Do you know anything about this Road Home Program?” And I didn’t have a clue and so I sent in my resume. And I remember spending quite a long time with you and some of the other staff members here. And five months later, I came on board. And it’s been, it’s been a blessing for me. I can’t describe it as any other way. It’s been a blessing.

Will Beiersdorf: Hey, Chaps, I want to stop you just for a second and tell, you can tell us more about what you do. But yeah, I mean, it was a strange, it was kind of a weird coincidence that how we connected with you. You know, I think Dr. Karnik. 

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Well, yeah. 

Will Beiersdorf: Right?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Yes, Dr. Karnik, who was one of the plank holders at the Road Home, had a mutual friend of mine who was over at the University of Chicago. They were colleagues. So, there was some synergy there. The colleague of mine at Rush, who told me about the Road Home position, I went to seminary with. So, there was synergy there. And, you know, when she said they’re looking for a chaplain who is a veteran, I said, “Wow, finally something I can do.” So, here I am.

Will Beiersdorf: It was, again, it was a real, it was, again, just the way it was supposed to be, right, Chaps? I mean the way it was supposed to be. And we are grateful to have you because again, yeah, one of the things we call it.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Serendipity. I cannot call it serendipity. Call it, call it karma. I’ll call it the Holy Spirit. But yeah, it was, it was meant to be and I couldn’t have been happier.

Will Beiersdorf: When we were first developing the Road Home Program, one of the, we were asked, we took time to ask a series of questions to a variety of active duty members. And once, you know what, what the program would look like, we went back to veterans and family members, specifically, as well as current service members, and said, “What do you want?” You know, and so there was a couple different things was really significant. One, they said they did not want to go and be in a hospital setting. So they definitely liked the idea when I said, “Well, it might be here in this office building here that we are with nondescript, no signage.” They were like, “Wow, that’s great.” They said, of course, they don’t like to see the white coats and things like that, you know, the doctors coats, right? They again, they respect that, but they also just don’t want to feel, the thing is, like, they just didn’t want to recognize and say, “Hey, I’m sick,” right? I mean, that’s a challenge. And you can share more about that in a moment. 

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Absolutely. 

Will Beiersdorf: The other thing they said is, “Are you going to help us, are you going to treat the heart?” Or one vet actually said, “What about my soul?” Ironically, bring this up all the time. And so, we help them. So, I knew right there and then, we had to incorporate someone, you know, from, you know, from whatever nondenominational religious background of some sort, but to someone who would help these individuals, you know, help them with their heart and soul. And so that’s where the program was born out. It was born out by those men and women telling us what they really want. That’s why I really appreciated that they really allowed us to build what’s best for the men and women and family members that we treat here. So, so, with that said, Chaps, tell us a little bit about what you do here. And hit upon some of our programming. Again, I know you’re into the, you support the Intensive Outpatient Program. So, talk about that. But, and also, let’s make sure we talk about the support groups and the things you participate there and just any other day-to-day things to do because I want folks to know, who you are and what you do. And also, why you do it? Why do you serve here at the Road Home Program?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Okay. Well, I provide, you know, my, my basic purview is to provide spiritual care for the veterans and families who come through our doors. And as we both know, that has evolved into a very multifaceted type of job. Besides traditional “spiritual care”, i.e., talking to a chaplain about religious issues, or those sorts of things, or providing prayer or sacraments, like absolution and such. Where I really am able to make a difference is – I’m able to ask that question. “How is your soul?” That’s my first question, usually to the vets. And having been on my own Road Home, I know where they’ve been. I know where they are. If I may be so bold. And I, I can just get down to the nitty-gritty a lot quicker.

Will Beiersdorf: Okay. 

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: And the way I introduce myself again, as I introduced myself earlier, that’s how I introduce myself to the vets. And, for me, they deserve total transparency. They deserve total confidentiality and total respect. And if, and I very quickly recognize that if my journey was any indication, the absolute criticality of having someone that these vets could talk to about their experiences with someone who “got it” was, was just, it was huge and incredibly important. Because, you know, I mean I’m privileged, we are privileged to work with some of the most amazing clinicians. And I, I have learned so much from all of them. But a clinical approach is going to be somewhat different than my approach. Not worse or better, it’s just different. And so they take care of the mind, right? They’ll take care of the body. And I take care of the soul. And what it’s allowed us to develop is probably, along with the other modalities that we, that we offer, probably the most holistic approach to PTSD recovery, recovery and moral injury repair that I’ve ever seen.

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah, you know, and again, you’re a significant part, critical part of the team. As everybody is, right? Your focus. You kind of hit on something was, I kind of like, I like what you hit on. I mean, you talked about the team. You know, yeah, we have folks that take care of the mind. We have folks that take care of the body, the wellness, right? You know, and then we have, then we have you, we have you taken care of their, their heart or their soul. So, you know, tell the folks a little bit about the IOP and what you do. And again, the IOP is the Intensive Outpatient Program here at the Road Home Program. So, tell the folks a little bit about the Intensive Outpatient Program, a sliver of what you do.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: With the IOP, and especially, you know, I mean, we have our combat IOPs, and we have our military sexual trauma IOPs. And I am there to provide whatever spiritual care and support the veterans need. Also, I teach a series of classes called, “Making Meaning of Service”. In that, when we were in the military, you know this as well, as I do, we had, what I like to call Tango, Mike, Papa. Task, meaning, and purpose. We had meaning. We had purpose and plenty of tasks in which to validate that. Out of the army, out of the out of the military, especially when trauma and/or injury is, is the big reason, you have all of a sudden had that cut off. You’ve had that lifeline cut off. And that loss of meaning and purpose can contribute to some of these, to the complexity and can contribute to the severity of some of the things that we treat. So, that’s one of the first things that I try to help and reestablish. Where I start with that is with something called moral injury. And it’s basic, moral injury is basically if you have been forced to participate, observe that sort of thing, morally injurious events that have shattered your moral compass, then, okay, that’s part, that’s another layer on top of everything else that you’re, that you’re going through. And with moral injury, it’s subjective to the individual. We all have a moral compass that we were raised with. Sometimes faith is part of it, sometimes not. You bring that with you into the military. And then you have made a conscious choice to suborn that compass to something greater by taking your oath, and all of that, all of what that represents. And, you know, those compasses are actually in tension with one another because of the primary mission of the military and, you know, being brought up, not to steal, not to kill and so forth. So, you put deployment into the mix, going outside of the wire, suffering these horrible traumas, that compass is shattered. And that’s a shatter, that’s a wound of the soul. It’s a wound of the Spirit. And the first part of making meaning is trying to be able to help the vet articulate what that means to them individually. Okay? And what we’ve found with the evidence-based treatment here at the Road Home, that the similarities between the effects of PTSD and moral injury are pretty close together in a lot of ways. So, the guilt, the shame about what you feel. You know, self-forgiveness is a huge one. I cannot forgive myself for what I saw or what I did. Breaking with their faith. How can a God I used to believe in and the God I pray to abandon me when I needed God most? So, there’s a lot of aspects to it. And many times a veteran will be able to say, “I feel this emptiness. I feel this hole. I feel this pain, this weight.”  But they’re not necessarily able to articulate it. So, my first step is naming a detainment and then we can start talking about repair. And that has to do with forgiveness with, you know, along with the evidence-based treatment that we do here, changing our perspective, not only on the trauma, but our role in it, and trying to change the moral aspect of that with the moral injury repair.

Will Beiersdorf: Wow, yeah, yeah, you hit right on it there. And again, for folks that might just be joining us, I’m Will Beiersdorf and I’m with our Road Home chaplain, “Chaps”, also known as Mark Schimmelpfennig, who, again, we’re talking today here on the Road Home podcast about the programming here. And for those folks that don’t, might be just joining us again, you know, we take care of men and women and their families who are battling those traumas they have experienced during the war life around PTSD, MST military sexual trauma, TBI and other, other invisible wounds of war. Chaps was just talking a little bit about moral injury, and we’re going to talk more in the future about moral injury. Philip Held, Dr. Held, you know, leads a lot of that research. You participate in that research, as well. We want to learn more about that. But, you know, Chaps, I wanted to ask you, so if you had, like, 30 seconds to talk with someone quickly, you know, and folks and say, “Well, why would I want to come to the Road Home Program?” You know, you know, “Yeah, my son, my daughter, me, you know, whatever, or even my family member, you know, we’ve been through other programs and things, you know, it’s just sometimes it doesn’t seem to work.” You know, so, you know, so why would, why would folks want to come to the Road Home Program? How would you, what would you share with them in a real short, concise way to kind of say, what is the difference? You know, and why would you want to give Road Home that opportunity to, you know, give, give them a chance, whether it be battling PTSD, maybe moral injury? Or maybe this has some other challenges. But what is the one thing you’d share with them say, why Road Home Program?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Well, it offers veterans and their families a holistic approach to therapy and repair, performed by best-of-breed personnel. And with the primary mission, that will always be the primary mission, is that it is about the vet. The vet’s family, the vet’s issues, the vet’s children. Our mission are those men and women who come through our doors. And with the range of modalities that we have from myself to the, you know, the therapy of the, of the clinicians, the cognitive processing, the mindfulness, the yoga, the nutrition, the art. We offer a breadth of things that a veteran can resonate with, bring with them when they go home, and continue to utilize to help themselves get better. How’d I do?

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah. No, it’s, you hit it. I mean, there is so much to share, Chaps. So again, it’s hard for me to say, “Come on, Chaps. Give me, like, one sentence. You know, why?” You know, it’s so hard to do that, because, again, there’s so many different facets to what we do. But you did hit on the one thing, you know, the best of breed. The best. I mean, we have some of the best clinicians and again, both men and women that are not just the psychiatrists and psychologists, you know, the postdocs, the LC PCs, right? These are, you know, licensed clinical social workers or licensed clinical professional counselors, all of them play an active role, critical role. Our social work interns. I mean, everybody plays a role, but the key thing is that they care. And I think you hit on that too. I mean, this is a place where we care. And if we, and here’s the thing, if we can’t find a way to help you here, and if it’s not a fit, then there’s other options. But this is one alternative that I think folks should learn about. So, so again, you know, if you’re just joining us here with the Road Home podcast, I’m with Chaps. Chaps is our chaplain here at the Road Home Program and we’re talking about a variety of different things around moral injury and some of the other invisible wounds of war in life. And if you’d like to learn more, you can go, a couple different things, you can call us at 312-942-8387. It’s 312 942 VETS, or you can also go online and you go to our website at Road Home Program, Road Home Program, all one word, dot org. And we’re also on Facebook. So, so again, Chaps, as we wrap up here, and we talked a lot about a lot of different things here, is there anything else you want to share with folks? Or is there one message or one thought to kind of, you know, push out here, as we as we wrap up, about the Road Home Program that we might have missed? Is there something else that we should let the folks know about? Or any other thoughts?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Well, we’re here. And, you know, tell the world. It’s amazing to me that even with as many veteran organizations out there, like ours, or veterans service organizations, and all the rest, they’re – even in our own community that they don’t know about Road Home. So, there’s that. But more importantly, for the veteran, we care. You’re, if, this is about you, it’s not about us, or any other agenda that we have. It’s about you. And we provide the four pillars of care. Physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. And we do it darn well and we’ve been able to prove that through research and all the rest of it. But, and I’ve heard this from the vets, so I, you know, I mean, this isn’t marketing stuff. But invariably, the vets will say, I have never been to a place that has cared so much about me. And that says a lot.

Will Beiersdorf: I think you hit on it. And you know, again, it goes back to our values. If I didn’t bring that up, or say that, I mean, we have our Road Home/Rush, I CARE values. The innovation, you know. The collaboration, the accountability, right? Respect, and then of course, excellence. I also want to kind of…

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: We strive for excellence; we work in a universal environment, an atmosphere of respect. We are accountable. We’re not only accountable to ourselves, but more importantly, to the vets we serve. What was C, again?

Will Beiersdorf: Collaboration. 

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Collaborate. Collaboration is one of the critical keys to our success. We collaborate, you know, regardless of what your job is, and what your forte is, everybody contributes everyone collaborates. Like, I talk to clinicians all the time. And share with them what I can give in confidentiality. But I, you know, we collaborate to be to better help the veteran. And that’s just how it’s done. And quite honestly, I don’t, you know, I don’t see how it could work otherwise. And innovation? Hey, we, you know, this is especially for me in this position as Chaplin, when I started, I was it. I don’t know if there’s other chaplains out there any other work or network places. But, you know, I’ve been innovating since I started, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that unless I had the access to collaboration and the access to excellence that I have with my colleagues.

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah, no, you couldn’t have said it any better. I mean, I love that. I mean, because again, innovation, collaboration, accountability, respect, and excellence. The other thing I want to make sure that we share with folks, and we may we might have hit on this, but you know, everybody is welcome here, right? I mean, so when we say that, so it doesn’t matter, the branch it doesn’t matter when you serve, because we, of course, we’ve got an incredible focus on our post 9/11, but we also take care of our pre 9/11 folks, family members, very, very robust, liberal, very wide open, you know, definition of family. So again, it could be your neighbor, you know, that’s taking care of your vets or, you know, that could be your family member, and so, we want to make sure, and then we truly, truly try to reduce all the barriers to care. So, regardless of your ability to pay, regardless of your discharge status, right, Chaps? I mean, I know… 

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Yes. 

Will Beiersdorf: Many folks do. Right?

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: And, you know, now that we’re doing pre 9/11 vets, I have several Vietnam era veterans that, you know, they’re, for the first time since they were in ‘Nam, which was, what, 50, 60 years ago now, they feel that they’ve got someone who can listen. And that’s not just me, it’s the other people that they see here at the Road Home. And that’s huge. And so, you know, I mean, and I look back to my father’s generation in World War II, you know, they didn’t have Road Homes. And I don’t know how much that may have hurt that generation in the long run. I don’t know. My father never talked about it. It was just not what he did. But we have people that can help and that can listen. And we listen with respect. And we listen with inclusion. And there is no judgment. So, for a vet who has been on the outside looking in that is huge.

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah. No, you, yeah, again, right on target, as usual. So um, you know, and again, as we wrap up here, this is the Road Home Program podcast. I’m talking with Mark Schimmelpfennig, who is our chaplain. We call him Chaps. Chaps, I really appreciate your time today. And again, if you want to learn more about us about the Road Home Program here at Rush, you can go to, you know, Road Home Program dot org that’s our website. You can call us 312-942-8387. And again, regardless of your ability to pay, regardless of the discharge status, you know, please if you know someone or if you are struggling or challenged by some of these traumas that we talked about, about PTSD and MST, please call us. You know, email us, or else reach out to us again, there’s, we’ve got a team of outreach coordinators here or again, you can go online and you could probably even… Go on.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: No, I just want to say anyone who might be watching this who isn’t it, may or maybe not vet themselves, but knows veterans, don’t be afraid to reach out to them. Okay? You never know where they might be, and that might be a very dark place. And so the only other thing I want to say is, “Go Army. Beat Navy.”

Will Beiersdorf: Oh, goodness. Yeah. Right, right on the fringe of the Army Navy game here. And of course, I served in both. Hey, but Chaps, before I let you go, though, I want to just ask you one other question. I apologize. Share with folks the support group, the Coffee with Chaps or is it cappuccino with Chaps? I’m not sure. So, tell us about it.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: I host, and this is every other Wednesday at 1800. It goes to 1930. And that’s six o’clock to 7:30 in the evening for you civilian types. And it’s called Coffee with Chaps. And it is combat vets to just sit and talk and shoot the breeze with other combat vets. We’ve already talked about some pretty wild stuff. But, what it is – It’s a forum. It’s a sanctuary, which is completely confidential. And whoever comes to participate, a hour and a half to just let loose. Talk about what’s bothering you. Or just get away from it all. You know, the stress of the day, maybe the stress of the family and talk to other people who get it. And it’s every other Wednesday, you can sign up on Eventbrite. And I don’t remember the link right off the hand, right offhand. But if you go to Eventbrite Road Home Program, Coffee with Chaps, you can sign up and I’d love to see you.

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah, no, that’s, I’m glad we hit on that. I did not want to forget about that because that’s, you know, with all the different things we do here, we have the support groups, you know, you know, the Coffee with Chaps. What’s some of the other support groups we’ve got? Do You Love A Veteran. I know we’ve got that in play, that’s going on. And so there’s a lot of different things that are out there to support, again, folks that are, you know, whether it’s, you know, you’re a veteran who’s experienced combat, you know, a combat veteran, or, or family members or folks that have, you know, been outside of that realm. But regardless, I mean, we’re here for you, like you said earlier, Chaps.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Or you’re just, or just as importantly, military sexual trauma survivors. We have forums for the whole range and breadth of the populations we treat. So, um, I’d be surprised if you weren’t, were not able to find something on our website that might, you might view as an observer here today, might be interested in and want to connect with? I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find something. And if you couldn’t. call us! Because we have an outreach group that is Bravo Alpha so to say, to say the least, and they can hook you up. I gotta tell you, I mean, it’s awesome. So don’t be afraid to reach out. Peace.

Will Beiersdorf: Yeah. Good message, Chaps. All right, so we’re going to wrap up. Again, Chaps, thanks for your time. Again, this was the Road Home podcast, the Road Home podcast here at Rush. And, again, if you want to learn more about us, you can call us 312-942-8387. Or that’s 942-VETS, or you can go on our website at Road Home Program, all one word Road Home Program dot org. We’re on Facebook. Please take time if you know someone, or yourself, you would like to learn more, or call us and again, you can even probably find a way to get in connect with Chaps, too, if you’d like or someone in our outreach team. Just, just make the call. Connect with us. And I’m grateful that we’re here for you. And I’m grateful for Chaps, you know. Chaps, again thanks for being a part of the team, part of the Road Home family.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: No, thank you. Will,

Will Beiersdorf: Have a great day. And thanks again for listening.

Mark “Chaps” Schimmelpfennig: Peace.


About Road Home Program: The Podcast

Veterans have served our country, now it’s our turn to serve them. Road Home’s Will Beiersdorf talks with veterans and their families about their journeys transitioning to civilian life. During every episode you’ll hear from subject matter experts, like Rush clinicians, staff and community partners, discussing resources and services available to veterans to help them heal from the invisible wounds of war. Subscribe, download, or listen to other Road Home Program podcast episodes.

The Road Home Program provides mental health care and wellness to veterans of all eras, service members, and their families at no cost and regardless of discharge status. If you or a loved one needs help, call us at (312) 942-8387 (VETS) or fill out the Get Care form.