The Vet Center-The Best Kept Secret of the VA

The number one reason I’ve heard for not reaching out for help is fear. Fear that seeking help, much less needing it is a sign of weakness or failure. Fear of being reported to command, if still active duty. Fear that having sought help becomes a mark that will follow a veteran forever.

Sadly, those fears of consequences for having sought help are justified. Legion are the stories of finally finding the strength to seek help, only to be handed a diagnosis that becomes part of the veterans’ permanent medical record. That diagnosis then colors the veterans perception of themselves. It also affects how they are viewed by many doctors and professionals with whom they come in contact. Worst of all, for some that diagnosis prevents them from getting a job.

Often, a recently returned combat veteran needs just a little help. Call it ‘readjustment’ or ‘reintegration’. Get that help immediately and future problems with depression, anxiety, family strife and even homelessness and unemployment can be averted. Every branch of the military does offer, even require, returning troops to sit through hours and days of ‘redeployment debriefings’, but ask anyone who has attended one if they got anything out of it. The number one reason even those who need the help don’t take advantage of it is once again, fear. Justified fear.

There is one option that is astoundingly easy to access even for active duty personnel but is still infuriatingly the best kept secret in the VA. The Vet Center.

Many who are still active duty don’t know this option is available to them, if they are aware of it all. In addition, simply saying it is part of the VA is enough to scare others off, until exactly who The Vet Center is, what they do and how they came to be is understood.

In short, just after Viet Nam a few vets got together to help one another, somewhat quietly and privately, but most importantly securely. As combat veterans themselves, they knew no one was better equipped to help other veterans.

By word of mouth the initiative grew until one day, they approached the VA for funding. They were successfully doing what the VA couldn’t; they were reaching vets and helping them.

Unsurprisingly, and in my opinion displaying the same arrogance and protective self-interest that is the cause of the VA scandals today, they were turned down. Abruptly. Some would say rudely.

Fast forward a few decades. There are Vet Centers all over the country, continuing to do what the VA can’t. Now the VA comes knocking, offering funding.

The Vet Center response was perfect. Sure, they said, we’d love the funding but on one condition – we never, ever, ever share our records. We don’t report to you, the Pentagon, the DoD or any Chain of Command. Ever. We are successful because those who come to us are assured of confidentiality. All that is required to be eligible is proof of service in a combat zone. And it is free. Always, forever free. Their service is their payment, both for themselves and their families.

Surprisingly, the VA agreed. In 2011, legislation was passed allowing the VA to advertise its services for the first time, yet The Vet Center still doesn’t advertise; the VA doesn’t seem too interested in spending any of those advertising dollars on the one part of the system that is working. The Vet Center is, to this day, almost exclusively found by word of mouth and by their own outreach efforts. If you’ve ever attended a veteran-focused event, you may have seen their bus parked alongside the VA mobile health bus.

It is still too early to tell, but that proximity may be having a negative effect, giving the impression that The Vet Center is just another arm of the VA. It is, but it is an autonomous arm, completely divorced from the VA system. Which in part explains why the VA doesn’t, as standard operating procedure, refer veterans to The Vet Center and instead puts even those in crisis on waiting lists, or worse, refers them to civilian counselors who take veterans because it is easy money.

The only criticism of The Vet Center is that they only work with combat veterans. I’ve been told this is the excuse for the VA not referring to them. But this is only partly true. The Vet Center does require the veteran seeking services be a combat veteran, but if you are not they don’t just turn you away. Their lists for outside referrals are carefully screened so that there can be confidence the civilian counselors to which you are referred take vets as clients because they believe it is their duty to all those who once wore the uniform. The Vet Center also offers services to the families of combat veterans, even while the soldier is still overseas.

For obvious reasons, military command doesn’t want active duty soldiers going outside for help, but this insistence on keeping everything in house is a significant contributor to the death toll. The commander that invites The Vet Center in to talk to his troops is a rare bird, but the mark of one who cares first and foremost about the well-being of his soldiers. Because The Vet Center staffs Veteran Service Officers experienced in filing for VA claims, GI benefits, others who can assist in financial planning and even marital counseling, having a Vet Center bus monthly roll onto every base in the country should be a part of the “Morale, Welfare and Family” program of every branch of service.

Until that day, veterans, families and active duty soldiers will have to seek out their nearest Vet Center. There are more than 300 offices across the country and in five territories. In addition, there is a 24/7/365 phone number, accessible from nearly anywhere in the world.

The most heartbreakingly infuriating part of all this to me is that not one of the soldiers I’ve spoken with who thought of or attempted suicide had ever heard about The Vet Center. How many families of successful suicides would not be living today in a shattered world had they known confidential, safe, secure and truly understanding help was just a phone call away?

If you are or know someone ‘in a dark place’, pick up the phone. Twenty-four hours a day, help and real answers are available. For the soldier. For the families. For our national soul.

1-877-WAR-VETS, 1-877-927-8387


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