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First Female Chaplain to Complete Leadership School Develops New Training Program

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jodi Snyder
  • 171st Air Refueling Wing
Capt. Gretchen Hulse, a 171st Air Refueling Wing Chaplain is the first female chaplain to complete Leadership Development Institute training in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in Aug. 2018.   

In her civilian career, Hulse is a mental health chaplain at the Veteran’s Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System.  In order to attend the Leadership Development Institute, Hulse had to complete a competitive process, which included an extensive application and an interview. Individuals are chosen from each hospital within the Veterans Integrated Service Network 4, which covers Pennsylvania and Delaware. Participants work with a high-performing cohort of VISN 4 peers on a number of activities. The Leadership Development Institute training is sponsored by the Veteran’s Health Administration in the VISN 4. 

This program is intended to develop future leaders by teaching new skillsets and leadership core competency skills. Participants receive leadership specific training, participate in live simulation, and are involved with various trainings. The course culminates with a process improvement project chosen by each participant targeting an issue within the Veteran Affairs context.  

Through her participation in this training, Hulse identified a gap in knowledge and training for chaplaincy in regards to crisis intervention, specifically with suicide prevention and awareness.   Hulse sees this challenge as an opportunity to prepare chaplains for real-life circumstances. 

“We (chaplains) all come to the job from different perspectives, not all having the same experiences and background, some having no crisis response experience prior to coming to the VA.  I saw this as a much needed piece of education,” said Hulse.  

To address this issue, Hulse initiated the first suicide prevention simulation training ever. The training covers crisis intervention steps or psychological first aid with medical actors from the University of Pittsburgh performing as standardized patients to simulate a crisis in which chaplains must respond.  Trainees deescalate the actors, ensure they are safe, discuss safety plans, refer them to other services, and help them move through the problem in the most effective way.  

“People actually get to engage with this material, not just read a book about it, but actually struggle with it.  Part of this experience is to feel the anxiety and fear in a safe place before the real thing actually happens,” said Hulse. 

The training ends with a debrief session guided by an instructor.  

“The most important part is the debrief afterwards when you really get to struggle with, “I might have tried this or you did good with that.” The actors add a different piece to it and will give feedback to the learners after the scenarios to tell how they made them feel during the simulated crisis,” said Hulse.  

The actors were briefed and trained to be the veteran in crisis on the scenarios that Hulse created.  The learners came to the simulation not knowing what was about to take place and were expected to utilize the skills that they were taught to respond to the crises appropriately.  

“This training will prepare you so that you are self-regulated and self-aware on what might come up in actual situations,” said Hulse.  

Over 20 chaplains participated in the training in addition to other clinical staff and suicide prevention coordinators. Hulse received a lot of positive feedback from the participants.

“I didn’t realize how many people were lacking this depth of experience, “said Hulse. 

As a result of the success of this program, the simulation education department faculty asked that this training become a regular annual training open to all hospital staff. Additionally, the National Chaplain Center for the VA asked that the training become an annual mandatory requirement for all new chaplains. They are also looking at ways to expand the training to all chaplain departments, even those that have been in service for many years so that all can have this opportunity.  

“This type of interaction is really unique that you can’t get from a computerized training. This is the live dynamics of human interaction. You can’t do that virtually,” said Hulse.      

The VA of Pittsburgh is special, because they have a simulation lab. Not every VA has access to these special facilities.  However, Hulse has already thought of ways to help those who do not have simulations labs implement this training program as well.

“Not every hospital has a simulation lab, which means they do not have those standardized patients, the medical actors, but hospitals could collaborate with a local community acting group.”  

Hulse is also discussing ways to mobilize this training with the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for all clinical providers in the VA hospital setting Nationwide. 
“It’s way beyond me now,” Hulse joked.  

Hulse has been a chaplain with the 171st since June 2012 as a drill status guardsman. 

“I hope that eventually we can integrate this training into chaplain school for the entire Air Force.”