What’s A “Vet Center?”

My last combat tour was in 2004 and I just recently went to talk to a counsellor at my local Vet Center.  Why did it take me nine years to do this?  Mostly because I didn’t know anything about the Vet Centers.  I envisioned the Veterans Administration as a monolithic organization that sucks you in and sticks pills down your throat as soon as you walk in the door.  There was no way I was going to put myself in that position.

This post is designed to shed some light on the misperceptions I had about the VA, specifically the Vet Center program.  These misperceptions reinforced my refusal to seek help and could have stopped my post-combat adjustments in their tracks.

But they didn’t.  I finally did seek, and receive, help.  And it was a better experience than I ever thought possible.  Now I want to expose these misconceptions and encourage my fellow veterans to take advantage of the benefits they’ve earned.

So, what was I worried about?

My biggest fear was that I’d get sent into a room with some civilian counsellor and spend three hours explaining what a “Marine” is.  How was this person ever going to understand who I am or where I came from, let alone help me deal with the after-effects of my service?

Yeah, that fear was totally unfounded.

The first counsellor I spoke with had been a Marine amtrac driver.  He’d spent two deployments in Iraq in an infantry role and I didn’t have to explain anything to him.  The next counsellor I spoke with was a retired Corpsman–he’d spent his whole career on the “green side” tending to wounded Marines.  Their past histories are not uncommon.  In fact, eleven of the twelve counsellors on staff at my Vet Center are combat veterans.

I didn’t realize that not every veteran can be seen at a Vet Center.  Although organizationally part of the Veterans Administration, the more than 300 Vet Centers across the nation are specifically designed to meet the needs of combat veterans.  Only veterans with combat experience (and victims of military sexual trauma) are eligible to receive care at a Vet Center.  By serving the unique needs of this specialized population, Vet Center counsellors are well versed in trauma and the specific after-effects of combat.

Why is this so important?  Aren’t all mental health folks able to reach into our heads and figure out how to help us?  Not hardly.  A good friend recently told me of his disastrous foray into the mental health arena.

He’d refused to seek help for his insomnia, constant hyper-vigilance, and overwhelming need to always protect his family from some deadly threat.  His reason was simple:  he was afraid he’d lose his clearance.  His career depended on remaining in a position of special trust and confidence and he feared seeking help would be grounds for his dismissal.

But he realized that he needed help.  Taking the initiative, he went to a psychologist not associated with the VA and paid for counseling sessions out of his own pocket.  There would be no paper trail, no computer record of him ever seeking mental health assistance, and his career would be unaffected.  He gets help with no adverse career impact.  Win win.

But the psychologist was of no help what-so-ever.  Worse, his ineptitude drove my friend further into his shell.  With his extensive experience in family counseling, the psychologist confidently advised my friend that his issues stemmed from an unaddressed fear that his wife was cheating on him.  No mention of combat, no recognition that his fear of being unable to protect his family was tied to the death of a Marine under his command, nothing based in my friend’s reality–it was all based in the psychologist’s reality.

When a veteran finally reaches out for help it is imperative they reach out to the right person.  You don’t go to a proctologist for a sore throat.  If you need help dealing with combat, go to a professional with the background to actually help.  My buddy didn’t and now he’ll have to overcome real anger before trusting another counsellor in the future.

What about his fear that he’d lose his clearance?  Not an issue if he’d gone to the Vet Center.  The computer system at the Vet Center is closed.  This is not necessarily the case at a VA clinic.  The VA has many programs under its umbrella and most of its computer systems are accessible to administrators of other VA programs.  So the data recorded during a VA clinic visit may be available to, say, the loan officer reviewing your VA loan paperwork.  But the computer system at the Vet Center is independent from the greater VA computer system.  Records cannot be accessed by anyone outside the Vet Center without specific approval from the veteran.  So what you say there, stays there–unless you want it to be shared to support your VA disability claim.

The professionals waiting to talk to you at the Vet Center have walked, if not in your shoes, at least close enough to know that they stink.  They have years of experience helping veterans understand what is happening inside their heads and true compassion for the challenges of coming home.  What you say to them is kept confidential through the isolation of their computer system and they recognize that protecting that information is vitally important to maintaining trust.  Without your trust they have no ability to help.  And that would be mission failure for them.

Their mission is to assist veterans tackle the challenges of coming home.  Through an initial series of interviews, counsellors assess what level of assistance a veteran might need and recommend several different courses of action.  Everything is voluntary and the veteran can choose his or her own path forward.

I’m glad I only spent nine years before going to the Vet Center.  Others have waited much longer.  Regardless of how long you’ve been home, make an appointment at the nearest Vet Center (you can find it here: Vet Center Locations).

Stop in, take a look, and get to know the folks there. You lose nothing by taking that first step–and you have a hell of a lot to gain.

2 thoughts on “What’s A “Vet Center?”

  1. Jenn


    This is critical information and I’m grateful for your willingness to share it. Thank you for this post. Keep writing–we need you!

    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Thanks for your support, Jenn. Glad to see your cross country bike ride is going well. Thanks for all you’re doing to remember our fallen brothers and sisters through goldstarride.com.


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