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Dealing With Past Traumas

Dealing With Past Traumas

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Assemblies of God U.S. Missions health care chaplain John Puleo of Millsboro, Delaware, knows the power of second chances.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Puleo says he joined a street gang to survive the harsh, inner-city environment in the turbulent 1960s. He started smoking cigarettes at the age of nine and by his late teens had become addicted to heroin and barbiturates.

In 1970, he entered a drug treatment program in Manhattan where he experienced a conversion to Christ as Savior on the first night. Soon after, Puleo felt called to ministry.

He attended Zion Bible Institute in East Providence, Rhode Island (now Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, Massachusetts), where he met his wife Ruth, who is the Women of Purpose director for the PennDel Ministry Network.

Puleo also served as pastor of Newark Assembly of God in New York for 12 years, and then lead pastor of Christian Life Assembly in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

In his late 50s, Puleo says emotional wounds from his past began to surface.

Materials from Paul Hegstrom of Life Skills International in Aurora, Colorado, helped him realize he had underlying anger. While learning not to cry or show fear helped him survive as a child, he says it ultimately caused emotional distance.

A turning point came in 2009 when he officiated his mother’s funeral.

“The whole experience frightened me because when I viewed her remains in the casket, I didn’t feel a thing,” he says.

Looking for answers, he enrolled in a Masters of Arts in counseling program at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Emotions awoke during the first class. He realized he hadn’t cried since the age of nine.

During a class on post-traumatic stress disorder, a memory of a violent attack 40 years earlier surfaced. He wept heavily as he recalled narrowly escaping the beating. The weeping, which Puleo describes as cleansing and healing, continued every night for a year.

After being credentialed as a board certified pastoral counselor, he completed a residency at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Facing another turning point in his life, Puleo resigned after 19 years of pastoral ministry to become a full-time chaplain a year ago at the age of 63 for VITAS Healthcare in Georgetown, Delaware.

Combining his counseling training with his pastoral identity as a chaplain, he helps terminally ill patients and their families deal with issues such as assurance of salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Puleo says his life has a sense of newness, and equates his experiences to Joseph’s statement in Genesis 50:20. He says at times he is able to help patients who have had difficult lives positively reframe their stories as he did with his own.

“Now I realize that God is using everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly — to connect with people and help them on the last leg of their journey,” he says. “This is what I was destined to do.”

The Puleos, married 39 years, have three children — David, Jennie, and Julie — and eight grandchildren. They attend Midway Assemblies of God in Lewes, Delaware.

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