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Alumni in Focus: Wilfredo Rodriguez

Military chaplain Wilfredo Rodriguez knows all too well that the injuries suffered by brave men and women in combat zones impact minds as well as bodies. As a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve who was deployed to Iraq with the Marines for two tours of duty, one in 2003 and again in 2005, Rodriguez has seen firsthand the long-term psychological damage experienced by those in the trenches.

“The wounds they suffer are not just physical. You survive but your friend does not. It sounds strange to say, but if you are lucky, you are only a single amputee, and don’t lose all your limbs, or suffer traumatic brain injury. These wounds are social, psychological and spiritual, and they don’t go away. Sometimes they don’t even surface until months or years later,” he relates.

Rodriguez, a graduate of Rutgers School of Social Work and the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, provided spiritual direction and emotional healing for troops during both of his tours of duty. While he found that many in the armed forces viewed receiving mental health services as a stigma, most were far more open to speaking with a chaplain about their concerns. While it was sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness to suffer from battle fatigue and stress and to receive counseling, that same support from a fellow Marine and chaplain was welcomed, and the soldiers opened up to him.

“The military is really a buddy system. It is a very close knit community but also a closed community. It helped me to penetrate their walls when I was a chaplain under cover and wearing a uniform. Sometimes by just walking around and speaking to them informally, I found that they would feel safe revealing their feelings and struggles to me,” says Rodriguez

He recalls one case during his 2006 deployment in Iraq, a time when casualties were occurring daily. A young female soldier, age 22, was shot in the eye by a sniper and killed as she patrolled a street. She had come from Mexico to become an American citizen and then join the military, and Rodriguez recounts that the whole platoon was extremely angry about her loss.

“My training as a chaplain, and my background in social work, helped them to acknowledge their anger and to give them space to express it, and also to help them say goodbye. Those who fell were shipped home so quickly that there was no time for anyone to feel closure or say goodbye to those who they considered to be family. I helped them to create a space to cry and mourn, and to give her a benediction,” says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who is an Eagleton Fellow from the Class of 2009, has been director of the Pastoral Care Department at Lenox Hill Hospital and Palisades Medical Center since 2006. Previously, he was chaplain for the New Jersey Department of Corrections, a member of Gov. Jon Corzine’s transition team for policy and planning for the Department of Corrections, and a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital. He has received numerous honors for his military service, including a Presidential Unit Citation in 2003 while deployed in Iraq with the Marines, the National Defense Service Medal, the Iraqi Service Medal, the State of New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal and the New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit.

About his training at the School of Social Work, Rodriguez says that a course on “Death and Dying” provided the best basis for his current practice of social work.

Foremost in his memory is an Afghan toddler whose family was killed when their vehicle ran over an IED. The boy was loved and cared for by Marine nurses and soldiers and was nicknamed “bambino” and given more stuffed animals than he could carry. One day his grandfather walked 30 miles to claim him and return the boy to his family.

“Sometimes you don’t know if you have made a difference. But with that child, we had tangible evidence that we had accomplished something, cared for a youngster and helped him to forget his misery. That stays with me,” he said.

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