Iraq War Combat Veteran Helps Fellow Veterans Use VA’s Vet Centers

Fort Worth Star Telegram

[Note: VCS strongly encourages veterans to use Vet Centers.  VCS applauds VA’s positive outreach to de-stigmatize mental health conditions among our war veterans.  To learn more about VA’s Vet Centers, please go to this web site:] 

November 27, 2007 – Joel Chaverri has seen combat, having participated in the 2004 attack on Fallujah, Iraq, the scene of some of the most bitter street fighting involving U.S. forces since Hue in Vietnam. He knows the readjustment that a young man must go through when he leaves behind that kind of carnage.

So when Chaverri left the Marines and returned to North Texas, he accepted a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs. His mission: to go out and tell young combat veterans that it’s OK to ask for counseling.  “I tell guys, ‘You don’t have to have a PTSD diagnosis or have a disability rating,'” Chaverri, 25, said. “‘You don’t have to have a disorder.’ Our brochures never use the word PTSD. We offer readjustment counseling.”

Established in 1979, Vet Centers around the country cater to former service members who have either post-traumatic stress disorder or lingering problems related to their service. Anyone who reads Doonesbury will recognize what they do through the character named Elias.

The Vet Centers in Fort Worth and Dallas do not prescribe medication, and they are not affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical system nor its mental health operation.

“We just do talk therapy,” said Michael Coulter, the team leader of the Fort Worth Vet Center, an Air Force veteran and a licensed master’s social worker.

Close to 400 veterans are receiving help from the Fort Worth Vet Center, most of them men in their late 50s to mid-60s who fought against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

But 25 percent of the new clients coming in the door are young veterans, back from campaigns against militants in Afghanistan or Iraq. That percentage is rapidly growing, and it’s even higher in the six-state region encompassing Texas, where almost half of the new clients are young veterans.

Chaverri reaches them by going to National Guard and reserve units, university counseling centers and veterans service offices in a 52-county area of North Texas. Without an active-duty base nearby, he must be “creative” in reaching out.

“I never know where these guys are going to be,” he said. “I have to make sure that the people the veterans are going to contact know about the Vet Center. … Despite all the VA briefs I got coming off active duty, I never heard about the Vet Center.”

The VA has hired 100 veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq to do the same for its 207 Vet Centers across the country, and it plans on hiring more in the coming years.

Vet Centers have also added bereavement counseling for the immediate families of troops killed in action.

The symptoms of PTSD are essentially universal. Sufferers distance themselves from their loved ones. They get angry at small things. They have trouble sleeping. And alcohol or drugs too often become a form of self-medication.

“Those don’t change based on the war or the age of the person,” Coulter said.

But what causes the PTSD varies as much as the personalities and backgrounds of the people in the military.

There is no accurate predictor of what events, witnessed by what people, under what circumstances will result in PTSD, and of why some veterans can process what they’ve been through and others can’t.

“It’s very common that you’ll have two men from the same unit who experience the same thing; one will have PTSD, and the other won’t,” Coulter said. “That’s why it’s so individualized.”

Chaverri said even if a service member does not feel like he has PTSD, it can be difficult to resume a relationship with a girlfriend or spouse after time in a war zone.

“One of the things that every family member does is ask, ‘Did you kill anyone?'” he said. “Every time I say that in a presentation to veterans, I hear all the groans. So we encourage families to come in, too.”

It’s not surprising to people like Coulter that PTSD has been a concern for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.

Unlike in Vietnam, today’s military units are cohesive and long-standing outfits, where troops know each other, know their families and have deployed with each other numerous times. National Guard and reserve units are even more close-knit, all of which means that experiencing a violent death of a comrade can be corrosive.

“It’s much easier to identify the traumatic event” with younger veterans, Coulter said. “With that comes quicker treatment too, and it often decreases the amount of time a person has to seek professional help.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder cannot be cured, any more than diabetes can be cured, Coulter said. But like diabetes, he said, a person must learn how to handle it.

“We can’t erase people’s memories,” he said. “But we can help people deal with them.”

The Vet Center

For anyone who believes they need help from the Vet Center, counselors can be reached at 817-921-9095. The Fort Worth office is at 1305 W. Magnolia Ave. Counseling sessions are also held in Denton, Decatur, Stephenville, Wichita Falls and Mineral Wells.

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