The memories for long-time chaplain Gary Myers are vivid.
The too many suicides, including on Valentine’s Day 2006, the same day Myers buried his wife “who wanted to live.”
The tragic accidents. There was the man who was talking to his wife on a cell phone on his way home from work when he was struck by a large truck and killed instantly. His wife had wondered why the call had been disconnected. She found out when Myers joined a State Police trooper at her home for the death notification.
“They had just sold their house,” Myers recalled. “The movers were coming the next day to move them to another state to be by their kids and grandkids.”
Fellow chaplain Carol Kost also has her share of stories. A chaplain with the Ashburn Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, Kost said she wonders whether she’s getting more out of her role as a chaplain than those she’s serving. One instance sticks out. She was called to the scene where an elderly man had died, not unexpectedly. She arrived after the emergency medical personnel and encountered three generations of the man’s family, including his widow.
“We all end up sitting around in this beautiful circle, and we did the wake right there. They told stories, we laughed, we cried. I felt an incredible witness to this beautiful life,” she recalled.
Just a couple years later, when that widow died, the family encountered another chaplain and told them about their memories of their encounter with Kost and how grateful they were for her presence on that day.
“That’s where you get this ministry of presence,” she said. “Sometimes you never even pray and it’s just to be present. Sometimes that’s all you do is just be there.”
Helping Through Crisis
And Loudoun’s chaplains have “been there”—whether it be at the scene of an accident, delivering the unwelcomed news to a family that their loved one has died, or ministering to the county’s many law enforcement and fire-rescue personnel—since 1979.
That’s the year that Pastor Charlie Grant, who still responds to fire-rescue calls, was asked to join the newly elected sheriff, Don Lacy, as the department chaplain.
For about the first decade of Loudoun’s chaplaincy program, Grant alone responded to calls. He juggled his role as the county’s sole chaplain along with being a pastor at Grace Baptist Church, starting a Christian school, opening a printing company and bookstore, running calls also as an EMT, and running a campaign for the Board of Supervisors. It was not long after his election to the Broad Run District supervisors seat in 1990 that he realized he needed some help.
He recruited Dave Duffy, a former Coast Guard commander and then the headmaster of a local Christian school, and the duo shared the load for several years before Grant was involved in a head-on collision that left him in a coma for eight days. After he recovered, recruitment work began in earnest.
Grant said he and Duffy recruited others they felt would fit for the important community role.
“We were very conscientious when it comes to getting people involved as a chaplain,” he said. “You have to minister to people in the right spirit. We don’t go out with a view that we’re going to proselytize; we go out with a view that we’re going to help people get through a crisis.”
Grant, 81, still runs calls and now serves as chairman emeritus of the fire-rescue chaplain program.
The chaplaincy program for the county-wide fire-rescue system has now grown to include 18 active response chaplains, with six in training. The Loudoun Sheriff’s Office has four chaplains, which is headed by Pastor Gary Hamrick of Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg. The Leesburg Police Department is working to revive the town’s program, with the department’s Public Information Officer Sam Shenouda leading that charge.
The majority of the chaplains on the roster for both the sheriff’s office and fire-rescue system are of the Christian faith or non-secular; however, if a member of the public or a first responder requests a chaplain of a non-represented faith group, the appropriate calls are placed.
While many associate a chaplain with having a religious bent, that is not always the case.
“Our team are real people, your neighbors, and our focus is on life and the appreciation of it—physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Myers said.
For Kost, her four-year stint as a chaplain came through tragedy. She attended to her neighbor following the unexpected death of her son, and that is when she encountered Chaplain Leo Flynn. She followed up with him a month after the funeral and thanked him for being there for the family as an advocate and comforter.
“His response was ‘did you ever think about doing this,’” she said. “He told me in that situation my demeanor was what called him to ask me this. And I’m like ‘I was in shock.’ He said, ‘no you weren’t.’”
Raised as a Catholic, Kost is now an ordained minister and is open to all faiths. But in that moment, she felt a calling to be the same source of comfort Chaplain Leo had been for her friend and her family.
Someone to Talk With
It is not the easiest volunteer gig to recruit for. Classroom and field training and background checks are required. Myers, who has been a chaplain for 27 years and has led the fire-rescue’s program as its chairman since 2013, said many may want to assist in that capacity, but “it is not for the faint of heart.”
“There must be a balance of inner strength, compassion, listening, and communication skills to truly be efficient,” he said. “This is important because we end up taking on the sadness, and later close our eyes and still see the images we have seen.”
“The worst is when it involves children,” Hamrick said.
Hamrick was called to the scene of the pedestrian accident that claimed the life of 5-month-old Tristan Schultz in Lansdowne on Aug. 31, 2016. With so many witnesses and first responders deeply affected by the tragedy, Hamrick organized a triage area at a nearby fire department to provide comfort and counseling.
He responds to two or three death notifications a month. He also makes a point to attend many sheriff’s office roll call meetings and makes himself available to the officers who may just need someone to talk to. He also makes visits to the Emergency Communications Center to be a resource for those county dispatchers.
“Most situations they just need someone to talk to. It depends on what they’ve seen and what they’ve witnessed,” Hamrick said. “I always ask ‘do you mind if I pray for you?’ If I don’t know them [personally] I take their numbers and follow up with a call.”
Hamrick can refer deputies and other staff members to the Employee Assistance Program, where they are able to meet with professional counselors, if more help is needed. According to Sheriff Michael Chapman, his staff also has access to the peer-to-peer Critical Incident Stress Management system created in 2001 and, more recently, the sheriff’s office has contracted with a psychologist to talk to all staff members, particularly detectives who work high-profile cases.
But most often, Hamrick said, giving deputies and others a chance to vent to the pastor and “debrief” provides the support they need.
However, they got there and whatever they encounter, being a chaplain can be just as difficult a job as those of a first responder. Oftentimes chaplains can serve as a buffer between emergency personnel and the affected family. Their presence may be welcome, or unwelcome. And they never know what they will encounter on their way to a scene, or a home.
But for the dozens who serve that role in Loudoun County, it is a duty they are happy to serve.
“You don’t grow up saying you want to be a chaplain,” Kost surmises. “It’s not a choice. It’s a calling.”