The Vet Center Program at Forefront of Outreach and Treatment
Innovative Readjustment Counseling Services for Combat Veterans
Michelle L. Mullany, MSW, Team Leader, Manhattan Vet Center
The Vet Center program, also called Readjustment Counseling Services (RCS), is a part of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Started in 1979, Vet Centers began as a grass roots effort to serve the needs of Vietnam vets who continued to have difficulties readjusting. Since then, eligibility has been extended to veterans of all combat theaters.
The goal of the Vet Center Program is to provide counseling services and referrals to combat veterans through targeted outreach, as well as referral services to eligible veterans in order to help them transition successfully to civilian life. Additionally, family members and partners of all eligible veterans are entitled to Vet Center Services. As the needs of veterans have changed, so have the parameters for seeing clients. Because of the most recent conflicts in the Middle East, Vet Centers were authorized in 2003 to provide bereavement counseling to family members of deceased military personnel. Military sexual trauma (MST) counseling is also available to any veteran who experienced harassment or sexual trauma of any nature during military service. Military sexual trauma counseling is a sub-specialty within the Vet Center Program, and MST counselors are required to complete additional education and training hours related to trauma.
The Vet Center Program has gained increased Congressional funding each year. The program is unique in that it strives to provide services based on the needs of the population it serves, in a small, non-intimidating, private office environment. Vet Centers are located in all 50 states, and the program is growing rapidly, largely due to the program’s tremendous success. While Vet Centers are a branch of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, they report to their own chain of command. This allows for policies to be created based on the unique client and community needs of each Vet Center. The NYC area is home to six Vet Centers, including two in Manhattan, and one in each of the other boroughs. Each Vet Center is operated based on the needs of the community which it serves.
In an effort to provide innovative services, Vet Centers incorporate traditional and contemporary therapies, including EMDR and body work with severely psychologically traumatized clients.
The dynamic role of the social worker is varied and constantly changing within the Vet Center program. Clinical social work services are offered, from crisis response to weekly therapy for treatment of PTSD and other mental health concerns, using individual, group, and family treatment modalities. Vet Centers utilize groups to address presenting problems related to substance abuse, PTSD, bereavement, and gay/lesbian vets, implementing theories from support, art therapy, and process groups. Additionally, social workers are called upon to design programs, provide creative outreach for hard-to-reach veterans, and advocate for clients who are seeking housing and filing VA disability claims. Vet Center social workers are extremely flexible and able to respond quickly to the demands of the community. As a complement to the VA medical centers, Vet Centers operate after traditional work hours, offering evening and weekend hours to veterans and families. Social workers employed by Vet Centers are provided with culturally sensitive training on military and veterans issues, and are encouraged to complete continuing education.
Many Vet Centers employ Global War on Terror (GWOT) Outreach Specialists, who are veterans of either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. These specialists are able to meet with the recently returned combat veterans in a variety of forums to qualitatively determine the needs of veterans in their unique community. At least 50% of the Vet Center staff is required to be a veteran of the military, and vet center staff provide education, workshops, and information to social service agencies and local businesses.
Vet Centers pride themselves on providing readjustment counseling in a responsive, flexible, and caring manner, using empirically validated treatments. Vet Centers operate with a small staff that collaborates weekly to provide professional support and case consultation. Vet Centers remain true to their roots and truly embody the concept of meeting the client at his/her respective level of functioning. It’s a wonderful opportunity for social workers to incorporate a variety of practice techniques into their work while working with a remarkable and resilient population.