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Dual-degree student called to serve

By Susan White

Even after nearly six years, Omari Thompson, a dual-degree student at UNC’s School of Social Work, can still recall the details of that pivotal moment.

It was November 2004, and the sun had not yet inched above the horizon. Thompson, a platoon leader with the U.S. Army’s First Calvary Division, 3rd Brigade, paused atop his armored tank, scanning for movement – anything that might present trouble. For nearly two days, his battalion had hunkered down in an intense firefight with insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, a city that had grabbed worldwide attention just eight months earlier following the deadly ambush of four American contractors.

Thompson’s unit was among those deployed to root out the militia, a charge that evolved into methodical days of explosive fighting and still nights of rearming and refueling. But on this pre-dawn morning, Thompson trained his ears toward the sporadic gunfire that rattled off in the distance. A blanket of stars above him, he began to pray, a routine that comforted him during his hours on guard.  Many of Thompson’s fellow soldiers admired his commitment to faith and often leaned on him for counseling and spiritual support. Some even encouraged him to enter the chaplaincy, but Thompson always hesitated. He needed to be called first, he surmised.

That morning, in the middle of the desert, as Thompson watched over his unit, the call came.

“I just remember being in prayer and looking up at the stars and then hearing the voice,” he recalled. “It was audible, and it made it unquestionable for me. This was an actual calling into the ministry.”

Flash forward to today, and although Thompson’s spiritual journey is hardly complete, he’s certain his life is now on the right path. In May, he will graduate with a master’s in social work and a master’s in divinity (MDiv), dual degrees offered through UNC and Duke Divinity School. But Thompson isn’t leaving his military career behind; he’s simply merging two passions. Shortly after graduation, he’ll learn where he’ll be stationed as one of the Army’s newest chaplains. As a husband and father of four young children, Thompson hopes to land an assignment that will keep him stateside for a while.

At the same time, he’s realistic. Soldiers go where they are needed and in a time of war, an Army chaplain can offer the kind of peace that men and women in combat hunger for. “My wife has always said that I am a peacemaker,” he said. “I’ve always had a heart for others, and I’m always looking to make things better for others. That has led me to where I am today.”

Since joining the Army’s chaplaincy program, Thompson, who is now on inactive ready-reserve, has trained at Fort Belvoir, Va., Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and Fort Jackson, S.C. Each setting has shown him the ways in which chaplains offer pastoral care, whether in a veterans’ hospital, a civilian post or in combat in the middle of a desert. But the experiences also quickly taught him that chaplains shoulder much more than spiritual needs.

“You’re not only dealing with soldiers but soldiers’ families,” he said. “You’re also working with soldiers who have substance abuse issues and soldiers who have spousal abuse issues. And you have to deal with them effectively through counseling.”

As a student in the School of Social Work’s dual degree program, Thompson noted that he’s receiving the training, studying the research and learning the evidenced-based practices that will help him meet the needs of soldiers and their families.

“All chaplains need is the MDiv, but I believe they are far more effective with soldiers and their families if they have an MSW to go along with it,” he said.
Thompson has had many opportunities to apply his newly-gained social work skills this school year. Last semester, he worked with some of Raleigh’s homeless population, while serving as a chaplain through Wake Med’s Urban Ministry Clinical Pastoral Education program.

“Some of the one-on-one counseling that I did really opened my eyes to what I need to learn,” he said. Seeing that many of the city’s homeless men deal with a mental illness forced him to set aside his initial assumptions about homelessness, Thompson said.

The sight of fellow veterans in shelters was also humbling, he added.

This semester, Thompson has worked more directly with the men and women in uniform through his field placement at the Durham VA Medical Center. Three days a week, he offers supportive therapy to clients at the center’s post-traumatic stress disorder clinic.  Although many of the clinic’s patients are Vietnam veterans, a growing number of vets who served in Iraq are also starting to seek support. Thompson has connected closely with many of his clients and knows that establishing such a bond might have been more challenging if he had no personal understanding of military culture and the rigors that come with the job of being a soldier.

“A big part of my job is just listening to them and supporting them,” he said. “I think being able to empathize with them not only makes a difference but helps them to trust me and feel comfortable with me. “

Thompson’s supervisor, Dennis Mott has also watched his student progress. “He’s becoming more able to speak out in groups and to talk about some of his own thoughts,” said Mott, a clinical social worker.  “I think it has been good for him to see how some of the other veterans have struggled with their own issues and that maybe some of the things they’re doing are also some of the things he can do in his own life.”

Although uncertain still of where his career will take him, Thompson said he feels very “fortunate and blessed” to have a supportive family and the opportunity to give back to fellow veterans if they need him.

“I really do want to make a difference in others’ lives,” he said, “and I know that the (social work) skills I’m gaining will help me to do that.”