United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Smiling woman sitting at desk
Veterans can count on a welcome greeting from office manager and Navy Veteran Destiny Cooper.
A Day at a Vet Center: A Safe Place to Talk

A Vet Center is a place where Veterans who served in combat, or experienced trauma/harassment, can come for service. Family members of deceased service members can also receive bereavement counseling at Vet Centers.

There are 232 community based Vet Centers located in all fifty states, District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

(Part 2 of 3)

The first face a Veteran sees at the Alexandria Vet Center is that of another Veteran.

Destiny Cooper, from Atlanta, Georgia, spent four years in the Navy including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2002. The proud possessor of a degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Health Sciences, Destiny knows how to make Veterans feel welcome the minute they walk in the door.

In addition to running a very efficient office - she's pursuing her Master of Science in Administration degree - Destiny helps coordinate the activities sponsored by the Vet Center, including, on the sign-up board the first weekend of Spring, a walking group, kayaking class and free movie with popcorn.

The goal of the Vet Center program is to provide a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services to eligible veterans in order to help them make a satisfying post-war readjustment to civilian life.

"Do the Trauma Work"

Narda Saunders is a social worker who has been a counselor for the Alexandria Vet Center since 2007.

Meeting with Veterans one-on-one and in group sessions, Narda helps returning combat Veterans adjust to civilian life by encouraging them to "do the trauma work." That means she wants them to seriously work on talking about the trauma they experienced in combat.

Woman standing, looking at framed painting on wall
Narda Saunders treasures the painting presented to her by one of her Veteran clients.

"First, we have to make sure they understand the Vet Center is a safe place. They can talk here. It stays here. Maybe they can't tell their spouse or their family but they can tell us. Many Veterans can't even talk about their combat trauma with other Veterans who were in combat.

"I'm not a Veteran but it's important for Veterans to have the opportunity to talk with people who have not been in the military or in combat. Trust is a big issue with combat Veterans and we need them to trust us."

Group Discussions Get Vets Talking

Narda counsels Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse problems (drugs, drinking) and emotional problems dealing with their new life as a civilian.

In group discussions, Narda will suggest a different topic each week just to get the Veterans talking about their experiences. A recent topic was "medals." The reactions ranged from Veterans who were proud of their medal, others who felt guilty and didn't think they deserved it, especially if their fellow soldiers did not receive one, to Veterans who remained ambivalent about the award and just "threw it in a drawer."

"One Veteran even admitted he threw his medal off a bridge," Narda notes.

One of Narda's fondest memories is a female Veteran who expressed her appreciation for the help she received by presenting Narda with one of her paintings. She also did another painting which she divided into sections and gave each member of her therapy group a section of the painting.

The goal of the Vet Center program is to provide a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services to eligible veterans and their families in order to help them make a satisfying post-war readjustment to civilian life.

The family members of all eligible veterans are eligible for Vet Center services as well.

"Our family sessions are very important," Narda adds. "It helps tremendously for the family to know what their Veteran is experiencing."

Man sitting at desk, working at computer
Hal Koster, Vet Center Outreach Specialist, visits military Hospitals to make sure Wounded Warriors know about the Vet Centers.

Everything is Confidential

Hal Koster spends a couple of days each week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda where he meets with Veterans and Veterans Service Organizations to explain the services of the Vet Centers and share valuable contact information. Like almost everyone else on the staff at the Vet Center, Hal is a Veteran and knows what it's like to readjust to civilian life - especially after combat tours of duty.

Having served two years in Vietnam as a helicopter gunship crew chief and door gunner, Hal enjoys explaining the value of the Vet Centers to returning Veterans. "I have to spread the news that this place is a treasure."

"One of the most important aspects of our service is that it's confidential. Veterans can come here, get professional counseling for a number of possible situations, and they know it's safe and confidential," Hal points out. "Their employer does not need to know they've had counseling here."

What is Readjustment Counseling?

Readjustment counseling is wide range of services provided to combat veterans in the effort to make a satisfying transition from military to civilian life. Services include:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Marital and family counseling
  • Bereavement counseling
  • Medical referrals
  • Assistance in applying for VA Benefits,
  • Employment counseling, guidance and referral
  • Alcohol/drug assessments
  • Information and referral to community resources
  • Military sexual trauma counseling and referral

Vet Center locations are listed on the VA website. Check the Vet Centers web site for more information.

Referrals to Vet Center staff are also possible by calling 1-866-650-1030 during normal business hours.

By Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer

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