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Veteran healer.

FOR A MOMENT ONE CAN ALMOST HEAR THE "WHUMP, whump, whump" of a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter--so nicknamed during the Vietnam War--as it navigates remote parts of the Southeast Asian country. Three clients of Sister Kateri Koverman, each a Vietnam veteran seeking counseling and comfort in her Cincinnati ministry, are nodding about the reality of the depiction of the war in Mel Gibson's movie We Were Soldiers.

When Koverman adds her approval for the movie's veracity during the session at Them Bones Veteran Community, it is from experience garnered during three stints in Vietnam working for Catholic Relief Services. At the end of the war she was involved in a CRS evacuation of children from Saigon. The Sister of Charity also earned her stripes with combat vets by braving El Salvador's civil war and conflicts in Ethiopia and Sierra Leone.

"The one reason I can work with these veterans, whether from World War II or the current war in Iraq, is that I know where they are coming from," the animated social worker and therapist says. "They realize I know what I'm talking about, and they also know they can't BS me." When she listens to accounts of veterans hopping from point to point aboard a Huey or dodging bullets and bombs, she can relate. "Without that, I wouldn't have the credibility to do the job," she says.

THAT CREDIBILITY COMES FROM A LIFETIME AFFILIATION with the military, dating back to her childhood. The self-described Air Force brat traveled throughout the United States with her family as her father worked as an engineering troubleshooter at aircraft maintenance facilities. Once, when Koverman was about 5 years old and living near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, she hopped out of the family car to intercede in a fight between two airmen, one white and the other African American. The incident illustrated her great desire for peace, at the same time proving that she was not afraid of putting herself in the line of tire for important causes.

But it also explains her desire to provide salve to the psyches of those who have been involved in combat, something she has done for almost 500 veterans over the past 13 years. This ministry started with a trip to Vietnam with a client who needed to visit "the site of his trauma." Already active as a social worker and therapist in Cincinnati with the Sisters of Charity, Koverman saw an opportunity to reach out to a group of people who often are either ignored or forgotten.

From that start Koverman negotiated a counseling contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), ultimately establishing her own ministry, which includes individual and couple psychotherapy, a 12-step program for war-trauma recovery, a special program for panic attacks, educational outreach for civic groups or military units returning from Iraq, as well as spiritual retreats for veterans. "The name 'Them Bones'--taken from Ezekiel 37:1-14, in which God causes dry and dead bones to rise up from the dust--isn't about giving comfort. Rather, it's about growing through pain," Koverman says.

She describes the therapy as a process of prayer as well as acknowledgement of the veterans' suffering. The whole person--the spiritual as well as psychological--must accept the traumatic memories of war.

TODAY KOVERMAN HAS identified a new kind of pain in veterans of the war on terror.

"I see a special need for the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan now," she says. "What's happening is that the VA is overwhelmed with active-duty folks and reservists returning home." That leaves a tremendous gap in treatment for those suffering from the traumas associated with war: seeing fellow troops killed or wounded, being involved in combat where military personnel tire upon others, and seeing innocent civilians wounded or killed in conflict.

One soldier Koverman recently worked with had just returned home from Iraq with her National Guard unit. She had been traumatized by the experience of seeing Iraqi children living in squalor and suffering from the side effects of being in a combat zone with a plethora of dangers unimaginable to youths in the United States.

"She had been very close to her younger sister before leaving, but when she came back, she chided her sister for being selfish," Koverman says, explaining that this veteran felt guilty on behalf of all American youths for their wealth and comfort. "This was a young girl who had entered the National Guard for college money, and she ended up in a combat zone. But now she can't connect. She can't maintain a relationship, she can't study. She is in a state in which she is raging" over what she saw and experienced in Iraq.

"I think we have an opportunity now to reach out to returning combat veterans, letting them know it's all right to understand there are issues they need to confront, that it's OK to seek help," Koverman says.

"The saddest thing I have seen is veterans who wait years and years to get help, allowing these things to eat away at them so much that it has in many cases ruined their lives. It does not have to be that way."



COMBAT ZONES I HAVE WORKED IN: El Salvador, Ethiopia, Vietnam.



WHAT I DO TO RELAX: Practicing and watching classical ballet.


"Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."--Ezekiel 37:5

By DENNIS O'CONNOR, a freelance writer and managing editor of The Catholic Telegraph, the Cincinnati diocesan paper.
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Title Annotation:Kateri Koverman
Author:O'Connor, Dennis
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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