United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Vet Centers: Outreach Inside Communities
The Vet Center in Morgantown, W. Va. serves more than 450 Veterans.
The Vet Center in Morgantown, W. Va. serves more than 450 Veterans.

Moving from combat to civilian life

The transition from military to civilian life can be an incredible challenge. That's where community-based Vet Centers can help. Vet Centers are run by the Department of Veterans Affairs in more than 200 locations across America, separate from the better-known medical centers.

Vet Centers guide Veterans and their families through some of the major adjustments in lifestyle that can occur after combat.

The Vet Centers are designed to help all Veterans, including those newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those from Vietnam, Korea and even World War II.

Vietnam Veteran Ralph Herbin has benefitted from his visits to a Vet Center.

"By going to the Vet Center - especially in group therapy - I accepted that I have PTSD, and seeing the other guys admit to it helped me recognize its symptoms and have some relief," said Herbin, who utilizes the services of the Vet Center in Charlotte, NC.

The Vietnam Combat Group counseling sessions Ralph has attended since 1993 are part of readjustment services offered at the clinics.

Not Only Vets: Counseling Families, Groups, 'Others'

Vet Center services include individual and group counseling in areas such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcohol and drug assessment, and suicide prevention referrals.

Vet Center staff also provides bereavement counseling, VA benefits assistance, employment counseling, information on community resources and educational opportunities.

At the Morgantown Vet Center in West Virginia, a typical week's schedule includes 26 group sessions ranging from a World War II/Korea group to groups with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. A "significant others" group and an open session aimed at answering general questions regarding VA benefits are also available.

Veterans David Gidley and Bobby Hussing at their Vietnam Combat Group Session at the Morgantown Vet Center.
Veterans David Gidley and Bobby Hussing at their Vietnam Combat Group Session at the Morgantown Vet Center.

Dave Gidley has been coming to weekly group sessions at the Morgantown Vet Center since 2000. "I look forward to coming over, and I hate to miss. When you miss, you feel like you've missed something." Gidley is part of a Vietnam Combat Veterans group and values the support and friendship he has garnered with his fellow group members.

Family members are eligible for some services to help deal with military related issues. In addition, parents, siblings, spouses and children of any active duty service member who dies while on active duty are eligible for bereavement counseling services.

Samantha Blevins is a Team Leader at the Morgantown Vet Center who conducts group sessions on sensitive topics like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "People start to open up and you can really have therapy instead of educational groups," she explained.

Moving Out: Mobile Centers Reach Remote Locations

The Morgantown Vet Center covers 16 counties in the northern half of West Virginia plus 2 counties in Pennsylvania - a population of nearly 5,400 Veterans. The VA also has Mobile Vet Centers and Vet Center outstations. Each week, three of the nine Morgantown counselors travel to outstations to offer support and services for those who live too far away to visit the center.

Major Rich Bourgeois, an Iraqi Freedom Veteran, goes to individual counseling sessions at the center in Charlotte. He found the Vet Center four years ago when he was seeking an "alteration of his thoughts."

"Counselors cater solely to Vets, and it's good being surrounded by all the guys. I feel comfortable being there," he said. "I've been able to identify to my counselors my thoughts and actions as they relate to PTSD and readjustment to a civilian environment. It has given me coping mechanisms to place those thoughts in their proper perspective and compartmentalize thoughts of war and the horrible pictures associated with it."

Additional services that assisted in Major Bourgeois' transition to civilian life included seminars on financial assistance, educational benefits, and living with PTSD.

Growing to Meet the Need

The Morgantown Center has 475 active clients and a handful of Veterans who visit intermittently. The staff continues to grow the program and find new ways to reach out and help more Vets. "We continue to expand. We are moving to a new building that will have space for a vocational rehabilitation person and a VA benefits person - so it's kind of like one-stop shopping," said Blevins.

The valuable resource the Vet Centers represent is summed up by Veteran Ralph Herbin.

"The services are excellent. The Vet Center is positive, it's unique, and the experiences we get there are different than any other. I look forward to my sessions there."

The VA Vet Center Program was established in 1979 to help Vietnam Veterans with readjustment. The Vet Centers across the country provide a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services to combat Veterans and their families.

To find your local Vet Center, click here.

By Megan Tyson, VA Staff Writer