Wilfredo Rodriguez: MSW on the Front Lines

Reverend Wilfredo Rodriguez (SSW ’10)
Reverend Wilfredo Rodriguez (SSW ’10) is often asked, “Why did this happen?” and “Where was God?”

As a Lieutenant Commander and chaplain in the United States Navy, he ministers to soldiers grappling with death and dying and admits that there are no easy answers.

“I try not to think that religion should answer questions,” said Rodriguez, who is currently serving his third tour and is stationed at a hospital run by U.S. and NATO forces in Kandihar, Afghanistan. “Instead of bringing answers, chaplains help people ask questions that maybe they weren’t able to ask. I let them raise the questions about their anger and guilt so they can look at themselves without feeling shame.”

After graduating from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Rodriguez was working as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital Center when he was encouraged by a supervisor to volunteer for the Navy Reserve. He spent one weekend each month conducting religious services until, in the wake of the events of September 11, he was called to active duty in 2003.

Stationed in Kuwait, Rodriguez provided religious services and counseling to Marines in the ancient city of Babylon. “We slept in Saddam Hussein’s palace in Babylon,” recalled Rodiguez. “He had gold plumbing while the people down the hill had no running water.”

A sense of fairness and social justice was instilled in Rodriguez at a young age. As a child in Puerto Rico, his family attended a church where the pastor emphasized equality, fairness, and social justice. “It was holistic preaching that balanced piety with justice,” said Rodriguez, who counts this pastor among his role models. “Being a spiritual person was not just about being a person who prayed and read the Bible. There had to be something where, in the end, we all benefitted.”

Upon his return to the states, Rodriguez began work on his MSW in 2005. “Because I was already in the military, I knew that, even as a chaplain, an MSW would complement my M.Div. I was dealing with psychological issues and I felt that an MSW would help me better counsel those struggling with drug addiction and suicide, which are prevalent in the military.”

His education was put on hold, however, when he was called again to active duty in 2006. This time, Rodriguez was stationed in Anbar Province in Afghanistan, where he provided spiritual and emotional care at a shock trauma hospital. While there, Rodriguez started “coffee hours” with the help of Drs. Patricia Findley and Allison Zippay, who sent coffee and music to help soldiers seeking refuge from the stress and pain of war.

“It was so gratifying to send the packages to Wilfredo and his jazz club attendees,” said Dr. Findley, who shipped the packages through a small substation post office at the East Orange VA. “Wilfredo always responded with an email thanking us for the packages and sharing stories of how much the soldiers appreciated them. In fact, we are planning to do it again while he’s in Afghanistan.”

After graduating in 2010, Rodriguez began reaping the benefits of the MSW — tools, vocabulary, skills, and knowledge — in his work. Now able to blend spiritual matters with psycho-social issues, he can talk about environment and how environment plays a part in healing.

“Chaplaincy is meeting people where they are,” said Rodriguez. “Not everyone is religious, but I think that everybody is spiritual. In the end, people want to make sense of faith and why they’re suffering, especially in war.”