By Douglas Moser
---- — LAWRENCE — The local chapter of a veterans group is working to establish a Vet Center in Lawrence to help potentially thousands of veterans and their families in the area and to alleviate the burden on the Lowell Vet Center.
Two claims officers with the Lawrence chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, Don Silva and Greg Debrocke, are starting a drive to get the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a local Vet Center, which provides nonclinical counseling services for veterans and their families.
“We’re talking to everybody to get people interested,” Silva said.
The nearest Vet Center is in Lowell, and Silva and Debrocke said older veterans — Vietnam-era and older — can have trouble getting to Lowell.
Lowell and Haverhill both have outpatient clinics but veterans must wait until they are approved for VA medical care and assigned a counselor at a clinic before they can begin a first clinical counseling session. The clinics’ caseloads are overwhelming and the current system is unable to meed the need.
“That’s where the bottleneck starts,” Debrocke said.
The time for veterans who are accepted into the VA medical program and need mental health treatment to wait before getting assigned to a counselor can be more than a year. Meanwhile, the veterans have nothing to do but wait, with few other options for counseling. Vet Centers can fill that gap with nonclinical counseling sessions, Silva said.
Groups like the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and many others assist vets with the often daunting and bureaucratic process of applying for disability benefits, which is a cash assistance program, and for medical treatment, which is a separate program and application. But they don’t do counseling.
“We’re not healers, and that’s what’s missing,” Debrocke said.
Vet Centers, which are run by the VA, can see veterans who have been accepted into the VA medical program but who have not yet been assigned a clinical counselor.
The need for Vet Centers has grown over the years with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan getting diagnoses and needing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other issues. At the same time, veterans from past wars still need counseling and treatment, some of them admitting it for the first time decades after their service.
Debrocke, a Vietnam veteran, waited 20 years before seeking help for PTSD, he said.
Veterans caught in the lurch, in between seeking help and actually getting help, can continue to suffer. “So what happens, then, is more suicides,” Debrocke said.
Silva and Debrocke have met with local political leaders, including Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, to begin the work of establishing a center here.
“We just started the process of looking into how we can support this effort and ensure that all veterans in greater Lawrence have access to the services and support they have earned,” Tsongas said.
Tsongas said she created a group of veterans services providers, the Third District Veterans Advisory Committee, to work with her office on veterans’ needs, and has staff members specifically assigned to veterans issues.
In an attempt to address a sharp increase in veteran suicides, the VA announced earlier this month that it has hired more than 1,000 new mental health clinical providers since last year, when retired general Eric Shinseki, the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, set a goal of hiring 1,600 in total. In August, President Obama ordered that the positions be filled by June 30.
Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA is specifically exempt from the sequestration, the domestic spending and defense budget cuts scheduled to take effect on Friday.
Tsongas said she would be willing to work with veterans groups to expand mental health services in the Lawrence area.
Additionally, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, who served in the Army, and state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said they would help lobby the VA to assign some of the new mental health professionals assigned to Lawrence. Both said they recognized the need for a center in the Lawrence and Methuen area.
“The increase in counselors available is very welcome news,” Campbell said. “I think we can certainly expect that both Haverhill and probably Lowell will be very eligible for some increased personnel based on caseload levels.”
Silva and Debrocke said they are willing to provide DAV space at East Haverhill and Prospect streets in Lawrence for to house a Vet Center with several counselors and a meeting room.
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