Director hopes to expand community chaplain service

Community service Chaplain Vernon Landreth double checks a “to go” bag which allows him to switch to the correct uniform to respond to critical incident emergencies. Landreth is seeking public support to expand the service for first responders, local churches and civic groups.

This was the scene Community Service Chaplain Vernon Landreth found in an Oklahoma subdivision struck by tornadoes. The group’s duties range from clean up to stress management for families and first responders. Landreth hopes to expand the program locally.

Trauma’s legacy isn’t dependent on quantity.

Chaplain Vernon Landreth wants to extend local critical incident stress management by community service chaplains. Landreth, who serves as the Community Service Chaplains: Atlantic Seaboard Region (CSCASR) executive director, is looking to do this with donations from local individuals and businesses.

“If you’ve been through pain, you recognize pain,” said Landreth, himself a seasoned volunteer. “It’s a way to pay it forward. It’s giving to someone else.”

He has been involved in relief efforts including tornadoes in Pulaski and Washington counties and El Reno, Oklahoma and earthquakes in Haiti. Landreth has spent over two years setting up the non-profit, 501(C)3 effort. It represents a faith decision to move to helping full-time.

Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner said the program is an essential component to help retain local first responders who routinely see death and disaster and still have to go back to work afterwards. He said the work done by community chaplains not only serves those needing to work through tragedy, but identifies those unaffected by disaster. He remembers his first contact with a critical stress management chaplain was when a veteran “smoke eater” told him he should talk about a heartbreaking fatality he’d worked.

“I remember a time when you were considered less of a man if you admitted something tragic had gotten to you,” said Gardner. “I think if some things don’t bother you there’s something wrong and needs attention there. It’s (the community chaplain program) a welcome change that’s been a long time coming and I’m glad for it.”

Landreth said fundraising is about meeting the costs of operational expenses of the on-call ministry. Duties for its volunteers range from clean up to riding with first responders. He also serves as chaplain for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, The Motor Mile Speedway, the Wythe County Local Emergency Planning Commission and as regional coordinator for the Church of God Chaplains Commission.

“I need to continue to train just like first responders and law enforcement. Funding can help with that,” Landreth said.

He said 100 percent of any funds for specific events go to meet the need with no operational costs taken out. A similar arrangement was used in Oklahoma. (Chaplains in the program debriefed families in Haiti and Oklahoma.)

“The average citizen in our county may be involved in one situation or come upon a crime (or accident) scene and they experience a personal tragedy and the resulting grief and trauma from it. First responders deal with long-term experiences. Multiply that one incident by one hundred or 500 incidents or incidents over 30 years,” said Landreth. “There’s a community aspect. They have to go right back to work. More funding would give us the tools to progress in the future.”

One recent example is where victims, families and first responders were brought to the VFW Post 1115 building during a massive car pileup on Interstate 77. Landreth’s effort is poignant in the light of the number of volunteers for fire and rescue decreasing nationally. Reduced numbers in rural areas in particular benefit where support equates to better retention of first responders.

The chaplains service includes critical incident planning for churches, civic groups and local businesses, large or small.

“You have to have a plan,” said Landreth. “The difference between being a victim or not is preparation, planning and equipment. Critical response not only includes the ‘big’ disasters. It could also include a church having plans in place for a medical emergency involving a single parishioner.”

Landreth said he and his wife, Mary, have learned through service in crises and carry “go bags” with first aid, food and clothing to cover possible situations from travel or other outdoor activities.

He said many do not think about how the simplest things matter from something as ordinary as a power outage. He said planning must include what will be needed for more than three days.

“Critical response includes older persons who cannot get out in bad weather. They should have something put together to help them keep warm, have food and stay hydrated,” said Landreth. “Comfort and survival are not the same thing. Simple things make the difference. Local organizations want to help in large scale emergencies. We can teach them how to do that.” He said he hopes to send letters to local churches and groups explaining how the group can help them plan in a user-friendly way.

Landreth said he learned the importance of simple things on a fishing trip 27 years ago. He and a friend were wearing shirts, shoes and shorts for an afternoon of fishing. They became stranded after a storm.

“I hadn’t brought a flashlight. I knew where I was but couldn’t go anywhere. The only time you could see was when lightning struck,” Landreth said.

The search party pin pointed where to start looking when his parked vehicle was recognized. It was 4:15 a.m. when they were rescued. On another occasion, he had to use his CPR training to save his wife, Mary, who has systemic lupus.

“As we have experienced our own personal tragedies we have learned,” said Landreth. “I was always active in the community so this is something important to us.”

People may find out more information about the group at and donate by emailing Landreth at

David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.