A large, raucous crowd of about 100 veterans showed up at the Vet Center opening Wednesday afternoon, for barbeque, cake and some laughter.
A large, raucous crowd of about 100 veterans showed up at the Vet Center opening Wednesday afternoon, for barbeque, cake and some laughter. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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&lt;p&gt;The centers provide a less institutional atmosphere for veterans and their families to get counseling and access other services.

By Rose Hoban

Veterans in the Triangle will have a new, nicer location to come to when they want services for themselves or their families, as the Raleigh Vet Center inaugurated its new location this week.

Vietnam veteran Cleophas Kearney was surprised at the Vet Center opening celebration with a cake for his 67th birthday. He said of the groups he’s attended at the Vet Center, “We get quite intimate in terms of our relationships without fear of having it out in the community.” Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The old location, a rabbit warren of windowless rooms in a strip mall near Raleigh’s downtown railroad tracks, has given way to a new location just off I-540, filled with plateglass windows facing a grove of trees displaying their fall colors.

“I like the view,” said Greg Inman, a psychologist and Gulf War veteran who is head of the center.

His old office was windowless.

The opening party resembled something closer to a family reunion than the opening of a government office, with the lobby of the offices packed with veterans, young and old, most sporting baseball caps with their old unit insignia.

In addition to celebrating the opening, friends of Vietnam veteran Cleophas Kearney presented him with a cake and a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“It’s like a brotherhood or sisterhood,” Kearney said of the Vet Center.

Welcome home

Vet Centers are part of the Veterans Affairs system, but they’re smaller, more intimate settings where former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines come for services that revolve around counseling and helping veterans get connected with services, Inman said.

North Carolina has six locations: Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Greenville and near Camp Lejeune.

“It’s a welcoming environment,” he said. “I think people can feel comfortable here and know that they’re going to get services and be provided with a counselor in a relatively short amount of time.”

Kearney said he comes to the Vet Center regularly to participate in a spirituality group.

Vet Center head Greg Inman has been counseling veterans for 13 years. He said his experience during the Persian Gulf War led him to return home and become a psychologist. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“I get treatment for PTSD as well as dealing with trauma, as well as the comradeship with fellow veterans,” he said.

Inman said the Vet Center offers counseling for combat veterans and victims of military sexual trauma, and counselors also do bereavement counseling.

“Within that, we do individual therapy, couples therapy, family therapy and group therapy,” he said. “And it just depends on what we are treating as to what combination of services and what the veteran and the family has a need for at the time.”

As deployments have decreased, the focus of the centers has shifted from providing support services for families of deployed personnel or supporting newly returned vets to doing more long-term counseling with those families.

That can include bereavement counseling for families of service members lost in combat or survivors of veteran suicides.

“Why just focus on the veteran when the veteran has, you know, a world that they live in that they have impact on,” Inman said. “So oftentimes we will do treatment for individual issues, and we at the same time, or afterwards, do family services.”

That emphasis on families is another reason for moving counseling away from the big medical centers to smaller locations.

A large, raucous crowd of about 100 veterans and family members showed up at the Vet Center opening Wednesday afternoon for barbecue, cake and some laughter. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“It is such a nonclinical environment. I mean, the Durham Medical Center is a hospital, and it will always be a hospital, but this is very nonclinical and very welcoming,” said Megan Warren, a spokeswoman for the Durham VA Medical Center who was at the opening. “That is the important element that the center brings that … cannot necessarily be found in the hospital because of the hospital environment itself.”

Over the reception desk in the lobby is a sign that reads “Welcome Home.”

Getting the word out

A focus of the Vet Centers is helping people overcome traumas they experienced when they were in active service, Inman said. That’s meant a lot of work on post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma.

He said the statistics about who comes in for what services can be surprising. For example, Inman said, many men come in for counseling after sexual assault.

Outreach worker Gary Cunha said he’ll go anywhere to get the word out about Vet Center services. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

“In the military, there are as many men who’ve been sexually traumatized as women,” he said.

And along with coming for counseling around military sexual trauma, “the women that we’re seeing here are combat veterans who are coming in for treatment of PTSD related to combat.”

The centers also do a lot of outreach, sending out folks like Gary Cuhna, who calls himself an “outreach ninja.”

He spends his time driving around the state, going to any event that will allow him to set up a table or a tent or come with a “mobile Vet Center,” either an SUV or a large van. Outreach workers end up at NASCAR tracks, football games, National Guard weekends, picnics, even the recent WRAL Balloon Festival. There was a Vet Center tent at the state fair for the past few weeks.

“An outreach worker’s job is to inform wherever there are veterans and describe what the VA does, what the Vet Center program does,” Inman said.

He said there’s pretty good distribution around the state, and more access to tele-counseling services in people’s homes, but that he’d like to see a Vet Center in the western part of the state.

They’re “reaching out to those vets who are out there in the hinterlands,” Cuhna said.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...