A new season Former CIA analyst becomes Hollings Cancer chaplain

The Rev. Nancy Pellegrini is the new chaplain at MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center.

There was a moment, sitting in the Oval Office with then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney when she asked herself: Am I really here?

It was 2007, and Nancy Pellegrini had spent many late nights preparing for the intelligence briefing, one of her duties as a senior Iraq military analyst for the CIA.

The president was gracious; Pellegrini conquered her nerves. And she did it all again during other briefings for the president and policymakers, highlights of her career as a CIA military analyst.

But then came a new season after raising children, after achieving her goals at the CIA, when Pellegrini wondered what was next. Life was long, or so she hoped, with many springs and summers and interests along the way.

One day, her husband asked: "If you could do anything else, what would you do?"

"I'd become a Unitarian Universalist minister," she recalls responding.

"Then, why don't you do it?"

So she did.

Pellegrini grew up with socially minded parents who instilled the importance of serving the world.

"They modeled social activism and putting faith into action," she recalls.

Pellegrini wanted to be a poet. Or a writer.

But at Dartmouth College, she took an international relations class and read "An Inquiry into the Human Prospect" by Robert L. Heilbroner, which opens with the professor's question: Is there hope for man?

The book delved into such issues as planet-destroying weapons and the global toll of human population growth.

It forced her to question her goals, her future, all of humanity's future. Could she play a role in avoiding such fates?

She headed to the London School of Economics in England to earn a master's in international relations, then back to the U.S. to earn a master's in law and diplomacy.

In 1979, she landed a summer graduate fellowship at the CIA. She still recalls being a 25-year-old stepping inside CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and walking over the giant seal on the lobby floor and seeing rows of stars on one wall that represent agents killed serving the country.

Her first duties involved analyzing and verifying European arms control issues.

"I was very impressed by the dedication there and the fact that there were many political persuasions," she says about her new colleagues.

The following year, she was hired as a staff Soviet military analyst focusing on intermediate-range nuclear weapons and supported arms control talks.

Although one of the few female military analysts, and often the only woman in briefings, she felt supported by the men around her.

"In some ways, it was an old boys' network," says Pellegrini, whose name then was Nancy Bird. "But I was given every opportunity."

Soon, however, she faced a dilemma shared by women of all careers: She became pregnant.

Should she continue working and career building? Or, put that season of life on pause and stay home?

The choice became easy when her child was born.

"I couldn't leave that baby," she recalls. "And I wanted to teach her the values my parents taught me."

She stayed home with her two children for nine years, a time also devoted to volunteer work.

She served as president of an ecumenical group of 25 churches. She helped her church find a new pastor. She coordinated a food pantry and helped resettle a homeless family.

It was a season of giving.

In 1993, she returned to the CIA, working part time for the first few years to balance work and family.

By then, nuclear proliferation concerns reached beyond the Soviets. And after Sept. 11, 2001, monitoring for nuclear theft took a top seat alongside analyzing proliferation.

In 2003, she was promoted to senior Iraq military analyst responsible for writing intelligence assessments, monitoring insurgency and ethno-sectarian issues. She briefed President Bush and other policy makers during the Iraq war.

In coming years, she was inducted into the senior analytic service, received numerous performance awards and became an intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

She loved the work.

But then, as she entered her 50s, came her husband's question: If you could do anything you want ...

During a visit to her home church, a female minister stepped to the pulpit. Pellegrini saw herself up there.

"This is what I am supposed to," she realized. "It was this very gut type of feeling, of a calling."

She was in her late 40s and still had plenty of time for a whole new career.

"Life is long," Pellegrini says. "You don't have to do everything at once."

In her 50s, with her children grown, she pursued her third master's degree, this one in divinity. It was tough to say good-bye to her CIA colleagues. "But I had a dream of doing something else."

She grew up Methodist and long was attracted to churches that emphasize asking questions about religious dogma.

"I wanted to be involved in a denomination that promoted that," she recalls.

She went to divinity school and was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist Association, defined by a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

In the Rev. Nancy Pellegrini's new office is a picture with Psalm 121, "I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from?"

The Scripture fits the questions, the conversations she has now as the new chaplain at MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center.

At 58, in this empty nest season of life, she left Washington, D.C., to move to Charleston in April with her husband, Dr. Vincent Pellegrini, MUSC's orthopedic surgery chairman.

Along with serving as a chaplain, she assists at the Unitarian Church of Charleston, preaching occasionally and receiving counsel herself from Pastor Danny Reed.

"You expect this Tom Clancy character or something when you hear about her background," Reed jokes. "But there is this gentleness and an unassuming quality to her."

He recalls when, shortly after Pellegrini arrived in town, she conducted a service in his absence that included a child's dedication.

"Her mother's heart was very evident that day," Reed says. "It touched a lot of folks and really moved them."

Her new ministerial roles take helping others from the analytical work of studying intelligence to being part of life's most personal moments.

She enjoys walking Hollings' hallways, introducing herself, asking patients and staff what they need, offering prayer or simply a listening ear. Although she is Hollings' chaplain, she isn't there to promote religion.

Many patients don't have a strong faith, she says. They simply need someone to talk to, or a way to process terrible news, or a chance to vent during the toughest days of treatments.

"She meets them where they are with acceptance and love," says Diane Aghapour, Hollings' patient support services coordinator. "Sometimes it starts with just a chat about the weather but often turns into a deeper conversation that brings the patient to a more peaceful and less fearful state of mind."

Pellegrini also can extend empathy to families and patients. Her own father died of stomach cancer in 1992.

She, too, has asked: "Why is this happening to me?" and "If God is good, why do bad things happen?"

Yet, she tries to guide patients down paths to their own answers, not hers.

And in return? Patients make her pause, make her remember to be thankful for waking up each morning to live this new season of life.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.