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Business and the Economy

VA Center Opens For All Combat Vets; Counseling and Other Services Provided

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A new center is set to officially open its doors on Thursday. It reflects a growing acknowledgement within the US Department of Veterans Affairs that it’s necessary to treat all aspects of a wounded soldier…including injuries and bruises we can’t necessarily see. The Springfield Vet Center will provide counseling, free of charge, to all combat veterans who feel they need to talk to someone about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, readjustment issues, or sexual trauma they experienced while serving. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.

It doesn’t matter how long ago a soldier served in a combat zone—some images of war can never be erased. "This office is a part of the expansion program of the Department of Veterans Affairs Readjustment Counseling Program,” says Gary Collins, the team leader of the new center.

Even though the grand opening isn’t until Thursday, he says the center has already seen at least 100 vets walk through its doors on South Campbell in Springfield.“It’s a counseling program for all combat veterans, bereavement counseling for active duty military who lose loved ones, and also any type of sexual trauma—for anybody who received sexual trauma or harassment while on active duty,” Collins said.The office also helps veterans file for their benefits, refers them for jobs and schools, and provides bereavement counseling for veterans’ families. One thing many veterans are seeking counseling for is psychological trauma. Collins says the Department of Veterans Affairs has become much more sophisticated in treating vets in the area of mental health. The stigma that was once associated with so-called “invisible injuries” is quickly falling by the wayside.Stephanie Starkey, a counselor at the new Vet Center, served a tour in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan. She says the Department of Veterans Affairs is now treating veterans who have psychological trauma instead of just “sweeping them under the rug.”“Besides just the societal stigma that there is on mental health treatment, up until fairly recently--just around two years ago—seeking mental health services could actually prevent a service member from obtaining a security clearance. So their career would be affected if they sought the help that they needed. That is no longer the case. That regulation was done away with,” she says.The symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she says, can continue to manifest themselves long after a soldier returns home from battle.“The obvious ones tend to be having nightmares, having flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts about what you’ve been through, having a heightened startle response, and avoidance. [It's] when you find that you are avoiding things you used to enjoy, or things that are typical and necessary, because they remind you of what you’ve been through,” she says.She also counsels veterans who experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse while serving in the military. And she works with couples who are having a hard time readjusting after one partner returns from serving. “What’s hard for couples is, during that time, they’ve gone down separate paths. The service member has been away, and has not only developed closer ties to other people, [they've also] developed new activities to entertain, amuse and occupy themselves that don’t involve the ‘couple time.’ When they come back, they kind of expect to drop back into that life they left.”And that’s something she has first-hand knowledge of. She met her husband, Steve Dillman, overseas while serving. Steve says his job in a prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was pretty routine, so he wasn’t directly exposed to some of the more disturbing scenes of war. But he says it’s easy to see why many soldiers would need counseling after all they’ve been through. “Just witnessing a vehicle of your buddy’s running over an IED and the truck blowing up. Seeing your friends on fire. Witnessing your friends losing limbs. There was a guy in my unit who basically experienced that because we had a 10-year-old kid we had to escort to the hospital who had half his face gone, and he had a lot of difficulty just coping with seeing that,” Dillman says.

He says he’s seen many veterans turn to drugs and alcohol instead of seeking treatment they need.“By all means, seek treatment if you feel that you need it, as well as even if your family feels you need it. Just come down and talk to someone. If you’re a war veteran, it’s free of cost to you, so why not take advantage of it?”He says he has seen counseling make a difference in his friends’ lives.

And Gary Collins, the team leader, is inviting all veterans and their families to Thursday’s Grand Opening at the Springfield Vet Center.

“We have a saying that we use on our logo. It’s called ‘Keeping the Promise.’ We believe that the veterans kept their promise by serving the country. Now it’s our responsibility to keep the promise,” he said.The Vet Center is for veterans who have served in any combat zone. By the end of this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs says there will be 300 Vet Centers like this one across the country and surrounding territories.Springfield’s is located in Kickapoo Corner Plaza on S. Campbell Ave. The Grand opening starts at 10:00 Thursday morning.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.