EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

February 27, 2013

Vets want counseling services in Lawrence

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.

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