- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - Last year, nearly 6,200 veterans found their way to the Vet Center — some making first moves to cope with issues they’ve been dealing with for months, years or even decades.

Quietly, without much fanfare, or fees, or bureaucratic red tape, the Las Cruces center has become a lifeline for many veterans and their loved ones. Services are offered through their outreach efforts at festivals and community gatherings and at epicenters of crises, such as shootings or assaults involving veterans, and at their nondescript downtown building.

Outside, the storefront has a U.S. flag and a small sign. Inside, the atmosphere is more clubby than clinical. The front room is filled with comfortable furniture, and wood-paneled walls lined with books, magazines and reference materials.

Las Cruces Vet Center Team Leader Ruth E. Offutt and fellow counselor Pamela Pierce led a tour of the rest of the center that includes offices for private counseling and a large room filled with a big table, surrounded by comfortable chairs used for group counseling sessions.

“There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of respect for each other,” Pierce said.

“Veterans help each other, it’s effective. There’s the sense that ‘We’re all in this together, we’re with someone who wore a uniform. We get it and were right there with it.’ There’s a connectedness,” said Offutt.

She and Pierce said new therapies and approaches are bringing quicker, more effective results to those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other readjustment issues.

“We never know who will walk in. It could be someone just coming home, or it could be a veteran from Vietnam, who is facing a crisis and has finally decided to seek help,” said Offutt.

According to their mission statement, the Vet Center is “a readjustment counseling center” open to veterans and service members who have served in a war zone or area of hostility and their families, to family members who experience an active duty death and to veterans of any era who have experienced any form of military sexual trauma (MST) or harassment. Veterans with MST issues are not required to have served in a war zone.

The center waiting room offers MST pamphlets for both males and females, which state that about 70,000 women and 50,000 men have reported sexual harassment and/or assault while in the military services, adding that the statistics are “believed to be an underestimate given that many veterans are reluctant to report these experiences.”

Offutt said in her experience, she’s seen just as many male as female MST issues.

“For years, it’s been invisible and unseen and just not talked about,” she said

Concise, easy-to-read pamphlets explain symptoms of conditions such as PTSD and other readjustment issues.

The U.S. Congress first authorized “storefront, community based” Vet Centers in 1979 as a nontraditional approach to help Vietnam veterans with post-combat adjustment problems. What was planned as a two-year program became so successful that it has been expanded and extended. The Las Cruces Vet Center opened its doors in 2007.

“The problems with readjustment can be huge. And some veterans can go for years and everything seems fine until something happens — a suicide of a friend, a divorce, an illness of a child, family economic problems. The trigger might be 40 years later. It can be a lifelong process,” Offutt said.

And in recent decades, the longest continuing conflicts in U.S. history continue to take their toll.

“Some of the younger folks who come to see us have already had five tours of duty” in combat zones, Pierce said.

Counselors noted that many vets are reluctant to seek help and prefer to keep a low profile.

Offcut and Pierce have a firsthand knowledge of what that’s like. They’re veterans themselves.

The two became friends when they were both students at New Mexico State University, but it took a long time, Offutt said, before they discovered they had something very important in common,

“We didn’t know that we were both vets,” Pierce said. “Veterans still don’t talk about their service. They don’t know how to bring it up.”

A common view is that things have radically changed since the shabby treatment of returning Vietnam veterans. But welcome home committees, choruses of “Thank you for your service” and hand-to-heart gestures have not really significantly changed things, counselors have found.

“Many (veterans) think it’s all superficial, that a lot of it is fake,” Pierce said.

The Vet Center aims to help with an array of services and information.

“We want to make it as easy as we can for them,” Pierce said, “We have extended hours from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and we’re open on Fridays, and now Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.”

Offutt said the center staff often functions as “gate keeper for many vets,” helping them navigate through a maze of sometimes confusing options and benefits.

The center also can offer marital and family counseling, alcohol and drug abuse services, and employment networking strategies and guidance. Staffers may act as advocates and liaisons, helping vets with benefits and medical needs and offering their experienced assistance in working with a variety of bureaucracies to obtain help with other veteran, federal, state, county and municipal agencies.

The two vehicles parked behind the local center are part of a nationwide fleet of 70 Mobile Vet Center outreach programs that extend the reach of brick and mortar Vet Centers. Counselors make weekly visits to see veterans in the Chaparral area and to the Santa Clara Armory in Silver City and the National Guard Armory in Alamogordo and also travel periodically to Ruidoso, Cloudcroft, Roswell, Artesia and Carlsbad.

“It’s the easiest care for veterans to access with the least amount of red tape. It’s free and they don’t need a referral,” Offutt said.

The Vet Center team also includes counselors Lawrence Eres, Amanda Travis and Shakina Alexander.

“I do believe we make a difference,” Travis said.

Offutt said many first-time visitors hear about the center from other vets, including those from the generation whose tough homecoming inspired the program’s creation.

“There are Vietnam vets who come out themselves and their bitterness because they want to help these younger vets,” Offcut said.

Even with advances in therapeutic technique, there is a lot to tackle, the counselors report, including issues of “trust after trauma,” grief, anger management, sleeplessness, health problems, drug and alcohol dependencies, learning new vocational skills, readjusting to family life and working through depression.

“We definitely have job security,” Pierce noted, but added that there is also a lot of hope, healing, and even fun and joy in the process of readjusting and coming home.

For information on Vet Center services and eligibility, drop in during open hours or make an appointment by calling 575-523-9826 or visit vetcenter.va.gov.

LAS CRUCES VET CENTER

What: Readjustment counseling and other services

Who is eligible:

- Veterans and service members who have served in a war zone or area of hostility and their families

- Family members who experience an active duty death (bereavement counseling)

- Veterans of any era who have experienced any form of military sexual trauma or harassment. These veterans are not required to have served in a war zone.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays

Where: 230 S. Water Ave. and through mobile outreach units

How much: No fees for qualified vets and their families

Info: 575-523-9826 or vetcenter.va.gov/

___

Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, https://www.lcsun-news.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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