Vets’ Center Offers Counseling and Support to Returning Combat Soldiers

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(Host) After the Vietnam War, a network of community-based counseling centers was created by an Act of Congress to help veterans readjust to ordinary life after combat. A quarter of a century later, those centers are still around, and hoping to be equally helpful to veterans of the current conflict.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Sound of coffee pouring, men talking.)

(Keese) The Southern Vermont Vets’ Center is in an office park in White River Junction. But there’s nothing official-looking about it inside. There’s a pool table and a kitchen. A big Bernese Mountain Dog wanders around looking for attention. A couple of Vietnam veterans sit on sofas reading the morning papers.

Mason used to see a counselor here. Now he drops by to relax when he has a medical appointment at the big VA hospital across town. He says a lot of veterans in his generation became disillusioned with regular VA services. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t even a recognized diagnosis when he returned from Vietnam.

Now the VA hospital is a leader in treating PTSD. Mason says they’ve come a long way. But he feels more relaxed here at the Vet Center.

(Dave Frantz) “The ease of services, the laid-back atmosphere, the comfort level I think is more conducive to someone getting the services that they may be eligible here for.”

(Keese) Dave Frantz is the team leader and one of three counselors at the White River Junction Vet Center. It’s one of about 200 Vet Centers around the country and one of two in Vermont. The other is in South Burlington.

The centers offer counseling free of charge to just about any veteran of military combat. Frantz says that includes National Guards and Reservists who may still be in the military after active duty in a war zone. He says the services are completely confidential.

For some, it’s just a place to be with other veterans. Frantz himself is a Vietnam vet.

(Franz) “And I’m really happy and glad to be here. As a combat vet, I cannot know what these guys feel but I can empathize with them. And I think that will go a long ways when they come in here that there is a combat veteran on the staff that they can relate to.”

(Keese) Tim Beebe was Frantz’s predecessor at the White River Center. Now he’s the regional director. He says the centers have been working with National Guard and Reserve family support groups. They’re already seeing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as they trickle home. Some centers have hired veterans of the current wars as counselors.

(Beebe) “There’ll be some adaptations that’ll have to made and most, 70 or 80 percent, are done successfully over time. I was talking to one young man two weeks ago as a matter of fact and he said, ‘Jeez, I can’t understand it. I’ve been home three months now and I still wake up angry every day.'”

(Keese) Beebe says that’s a natural leftover from a level of anxiety that may have kept the soldier alive in combat. But he says talking about things now may help ward off more serious problems later. And sometimes it’s easier to talk with someone who’s been there.

Back at the center in White River, a Vietnam veteran named Bill says the vets here rarely talk among themselves about their war anymore.

(Bill) “But if they were to ask for help we’d give it to them because our signature – Vietnam Vets of America -is never again will another generation be left behind like we were.”

(Keese) Above his head, a hand-carved wooden plaque says, “Welcome Home.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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