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The ‘heart and soul’ bids farewell: Longtime VA chaplain retires

  • Roseline Chiuma, a registered nurse at the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, signs a photograph of the chapel at a retirement party Monday for David Whiteley, the chaplain for the last 25 years. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Whiteley, the chaplain for the last 25 years at Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, in the chapel Monday, June 25, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • John P. Collins, director of the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, speaks while registered nurse Marie Robinson-McLaughlin, the associate director of patient care services, listens at the retirement party for David Whiteley, far right, the chaplain for the last 25 years. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Whiteley, the chaplain for the last 25 years at Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, in the chapel Monday, June 25, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A photograph of the chapel at Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds where David Whiteley was the cChaplain for the last 25 years. The photo was a gift given to him at his retirement party Monday, June 25, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Robinson-McLaughlin, registered nurse and associate director of patient care services at the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, presents David Whiteley with a photograph of the chapel where Whiteley was the chaplain for the last 25 years. The photo was a gift given to him at his retirement party Monday, June 25, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paula Stratton, a human resources specialist at the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, hugs David Whiteley, the chaplain for the last 25 years at his retirement party Monday, June 25, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



@ecutts_HG
Monday, June 25, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — He’s been there to guide and comfort veterans in their last months for more than two decades.

He’s been there to help veterans throughout the Valley with their spiritual needs, to officiate weddings for fellow Veterans Administration employees, or to simply listen to whoever needs an ear.

But on Monday, it was their turn to be there for him. After 25 years, David Whiteley is retiring as chaplain at the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds.

“He is really an unsung hero,” John Paradis, veterans’ outreach coordinator for the VA, said at Whiteley’s afternoon retirement celebration. “He’s been on the frontline of veterans seeking help in many different ways.”

Paradis has known Whiteley since 2011, when he joined the VA staff. Over the years, Paradis has seen the chaplain’s ability to put people at ease in any setting and his “exceptional way of reaching across all aspects of what is a very diverse population,” Paradis said.

“I think the thing about David that is so great is that he truly understands veterans in that he is a veteran himself,” Paradis said. “He has a very good way of meeting people wherever they happen to be in life in a way that doesn’t feel like you are receiving religion.”

John P. Collins, the medical center’s director, described Whiteley as the heart and soul of the organization for the last two decades who has been a source of strength. In his time with the VA, Collins said Whiteley has created a legacy of care and compassion.

“We’re sorry to see our beloved chaplain depart, but we are happy for him,” Collins said. “He has done his time in absolutely superb fashion.”

Whiteley said he’s enjoyed every day on the job.

“It’s a wonderful 25 years,” the chaplain said. “Our veteran population is just a special community within this country and they have all just been fabulous to work with and for through the whole career pattern.”

A retired VA doctor turned volunteer, Dr. Murray Watnick said he came to know Whiteley over the last year and has always been interested in learning about the spiritual side of humanity. Watnick said the way Whiteley talks to people helps in their healing process.

Working with Whiteley to help write policies, data analyst Constantine Voyevidka described Whiteley as one of the friendliest people he has ever met.

“He’s always incredibly positive and very warm,” Voyevidka said.

Around the VA’s campus, Voyevidka said Whiteley is almost always seen talking with someone, whether it be staff or one of the medical center’s patients.

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Whiteley came to western Massachusetts in 1995. He served as a small unit commander with an air cavalry troop in the U.S. Army after graduating college.

Following three years of active duty, Whiteley served 18 years in the Army National Guard in Tennessee and Virginia. Three years after his active duty and a brief stint as a commercial pilot, Whiteley said he wanted to do something more service oriented, so he went to the seminary. Both is father and grandfather were ministers.

He served as a minister for congregations in Virginia for about a decade before he took the position in Leeds. He said his own military experience as well as working with fellow veterans and their families drew him to working as a chaplain with the VA.

After two years at the University of Virginia Medical Center doing residency work training to be a clinical chaplain, Whiteley came to Northampton.

During his tenure, Whiteley said the memorial services held by the hospital on Memorial Day and Veterans Day have had the most moving impact.

“That’s the one opportunity the see the impact the VA makes with families, particularly in times of loss,” Whiteley said.

Whiteley said he has seen a shift in the chaplain’s role over the years, with more value and more integration into clinical work. In addition to his work with the veterans, Whiteley has also been there for VA staff and leads Sunday services in the VA’s chapel, which will continue until a replacement is found.

“I had no idea that I would be here for 25 years but I’ve never had a moment’s doubt that I needed to leave. I’ve enjoyed every day here,” Whiteley said. “We’ve had our problems but the mission and the people and the experiences have just been priceless.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.