vets helping vets in Berlin, NH

Leslie unloading hygiene kits at the Berlin Vets Center.

POST UPDATED 9-12-12: As you know if you’ve followed my adventures studying traumatic brain injury in military service members, one theme that emerges again and again is the difficulty of trust between veterans and their civilian friends, family, co-workers, and even the care providers they encounter. Even at the VA., as former Sgt. Matthew Pennington has explained, civilian medical staff at VA hospitals may not seem to hear a service member properly, nor to understand the culture of self-reliance and loyalty to their unit that makes it so hard to ask for help.

So the Vet Center program is a life-saver for many veterans–if they are lucky enough to discover a Center nearby. There, combat theatre veterans and their families can receive counseling from highly educated medical health professionals, including Clinical Social Workers, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors–many of whom are veterans themselves. Vet Center counselors also provide resource referrals for other issues (medical, legal, financial) that may be hampering veterans’ readjustment to civilian life after deployment. They help veterans to access such VA services as medical care, disability benefits, educational benefits, and employment resources. Vet Center counselors are trained to help with bereavement, marriage and family counseling, military sexual trauma (MST), as well as to screen for and address PTSD and TBI.

An important trust-builder at the Vet Centers: they work in collaboration with the VA Medical Centers, but they are not directly related to then. Vet Center records are separate from VA Medical records and are held in the strictest of confidentiality. Vet Center records may only be released if the veteran requests it. This is an extremely important point, as many service members may not come in for needed counseling if they think that their mental health records might be seen by their military supervisors and could adversely affect their careers (and future benefits). So active duty service members do not need to fear that seeking help from the Vet Center will compromise their job.

Unfortunately, many veterans and active duty military still don’t know that Vet Centers exist. And there are not many of them–only 300 in the nation. But the funding for Vet Centers has grown substantially in the past few years as the DOD and the military leadership grapple with the needs of veterans from the GWOT era. By the way, GWOT stands for “Global War on ¬†Terror”; specific campaigns within GWOT include OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, or the Afghanistan war) and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). So I’ll sometimes hear people reference OEF/OIF veterans as a way of referencing the most recent wave of combat veterans. Others refer to “post-9/11” veterans. In any case, this program is small but growing, and they need to help spread the word about the great resources vets can find through the Centers.

I had been hearing about this great program for awhile, but I still hadn’t visited a Vet Center myself, until an opportunity arose: as part of my Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteer work, I was asked to deliver 60 hygiene kits for the homeless to the Berlin Vet Center in the North Country of NH. In spite of its name, the center is actually located in Gorham, right over the border from Berlin. ROAD TRIP!!!

My co-volunteer Karen Morse and I pulled on our red SAF polos, picked up the Red Cross van in Portsmouth and headed to 515 Main Street in Gorham. There was a brief moment of sadness because we had been promised access to the coveted NH Red Cross Hummer for the journey, but it wasn’t available. Karen was more gung ho about the Hummer idea than I–she’s an Air Force veteran herself and extremely athletic, so she was ready to conquer the big beast and tame it to our needs for the long drive. I was intrigued, too, but the drive is 2.5 hours each way, and I was bracing myself for a noisy slog. As it turned out, we got the van instead, and the only excessive noise generated was by the two of us in the kind of epic, wide-ranging, female-inflected road trip conversation that good movies are built upon. We talked a lot about issues facing veterans, but we also had a great digression around our favorite youtube clips. We both heartily recommend Christian the Lion!

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Wendy Mayerson

So, Karen and I had a gabby, uneventful journey to Gorham, where we were greeted at the Vet Center by Jay Sprinkle, Team Leader, and Wendy Mayerson, Office Manager. Both are kind, warm people who clearly create a welcoming environment for the veterans in need who visit the Berlin Vet Center. We did not meet the other staff on this visit, but we did learn that more than half of the staff are veterans. Again, this is a key aspect to the approach of the Vet Centers: vet-to-vet support.

Karen Morse and Jay Sprinkle

After saying hello, we brought in the two big boxes of hygiene kits. We discussed with Jay the difficulties of reaching out to the homeless vets in the North Country, and then we did some picture-taking for Red Cross posterity of us presenting the kits in front of the Vet Center sign.

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Karen Morse

After the picture-taking, Jay gave us a tour of the facility and some history and core characteristics of the Vet Center program: we learned that it was first started by Vietnam vets who supported each other through informal “rap sessions”. The vet-to-vet format was successful but more professional clinical help was needed, so the Centers developed a formal relationship to the VA which began in 1979. The Vet Center program is, in fact, one extremely successful unit of 5 that now comprise the VA. We also learned that it is primarily a mental health counseling facility, but that they also serve as a resource referral when vets or their families have other needs. The eligibility requirement is that the veteran must have served in a theatre of combat in some capacity (even if you never experienced direct combat–please don’t feel that you must have been shot at to be eligible for support at the Vet Center!). Spouses and children of combat theatre vets are also eligible for services and do comprise a good percentage of the clients presently served in the North Country. The Berlin Vet Center works closely with the White River Junction VA Hospital over the border in Vermont, and even has webcam video conferencing for consultations with mental health staff there in cases where driving to WRJ isn’t feasible.

The Center is petite but lovingly furnished and quite inviting. There are comfortable chairs in every space, homey touches to the decor, and rooms for both one-on-one counseling and group activities. There’s even a backyard patio with a gas grille where veterans can informally hang out or attend barbecues or other activities hosted by the Vet Center. Local veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW sometimes partner with the Vet Center in such efforts; the Center also hosts meetings of the North Country Veterans Committee, which I’ll write about in another post. Suffice it to say, this is an important community hub for veterans and those who provide care for them.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were ushered into a storage area where Jay gave us some Berlin Vet Center outreach items: t-shirts and baseball caps for us to wear during our future outings across the state to help spread the word about the Gorham location and Vet Centers in general. Many veterans, even those from WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, have gone years without knowing that the Vet Center program exists. So Karen and I will proudly wear our Vet Center togs and explain to anyone who asks about the services available in Gorham (and at the Manchester Vet Center, which is the other location in NH).

Then we had an equally trouble-free ride home. I may have worn out Karen’s ears a little during our epic conversation! But it was a lovely day, a huge learning experience, and a great way to give a little back to those who have served.

So, if you have a loved one who is a veteran in need of some support, tell them about the Vet Center program. No matter when he or she served, from the revered WWII veterans still among us to our current heroes, all veterans can find a listening ear and real help to heal at the Vet Centers.

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