When a soldier returns home after experiencing combat, the transition back into civilian life is not an easy task. The soldiers often face great hardships as a result of the injuries and the memories they bring with them. Fortunately, for veterans in Philadelphia needing assistance for that often difficult transition is nearby. The Northeast Philadelphia Vet Center, located in the city’s Olney section, is as a place where veterans can find information, services and experienced professionals capable of understanding their needs.
The Center, which is located at 101 E. Olney Ave., is one of two in the city of Philadelphia, and one of the over 230 Vet Centers located across the country. These community-based centers specialize in Readjustment Counseling Services for war zone veterans. Among the free services that the center offers are individual and group counseling, benefits and job referral, and counseling for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The Vet Centers are overseen by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), a sub-division of the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VHA first opened the Vet Centers in 1979 for veterans who lived far from the VA Medical Centers. As part of their VHA affiliation, the medical centers coordinate patient treatment plans for and provide administrative support to the Vet Centers.
In order to qualify for the Vet Center Readjustment Counseling Service, a veteran must have served in a combat zone
from World War II through the present. This includes the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other areas where soldiers see action as part of the Global War on Terrorism (GWoT).
Juan Malavé, 60, is team leader at the Northeast Philadelphia Vet Center and a Vietnam veteran. After completing his military service, first as a Marine and later as a member of the Army, Malavé chose to move in a different direction.
“I decided on devoting myself first to college,” he said, “and then towards getting myself into a field where instead of destroying, or teaching to, I could help veterans.”
Malavé obtained his master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University, and then began working as an advocate for Vietnam War veterans. He came to the Northeastern Philadelphia Vet Center in 1985, and has been devoting his time and energy to readjustment counseling ever since.
“It is not only PTSD, but also education and financial issues, even housing,” say Malavé. “There are a host of issues that fall underneath readjustment counseling.”
The only thing typical about a work week at the Vet Center is the full schedule. The center currently has three counselors, and their workload always varies. Sometimes the counseling is with individual veterans who have very private personalities. Other times there are group sessions during the day or in the evening.
“We have a couple of groups where the guys are tight knit, and I never have a problem with attendance,” Malavé says.
The counselors also perform outreach services in areas outside of Philadelphia that have large populations of veterans. Among the areas they serve are Bucks County, Montgomery County plus Camden and Burlington counties in New Jersey. The key to readjustment counseling is that the effort is made to tailor the services to fit and reach each individual.
Josh Dillinger, 33, is the GWoT outreach specialist for the North Philadelphia Vet Center. As a former Army combat engineer who served one tour in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq, he has the type of background and personality needed for working with the younger veterans.
“My job is to get the post-Vietnam veterans, the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) guys,” Dillinger says. “We have to get them established in the system early so they do not wait decades before asking for help.”
After Dillinger completed his final tour in 2008, he decided to work in a capacity where he could help veterans. The outreach position really appealed to him, and he came highly recommended to Malavé.
“I was a leader in the military, and it suits my role – the going out and talking,” says Dillinger. “I’ve been through everything they’ve been through, so I fully understand.”
But getting people to use the services that they have earned is not always an easy task. One of the toughest parts of the job is counseling those who show signs of PTSD.
“Talking about PTSD is a touchy subject, because it is something that people are scared to admit that they have,” Dillinger says. “Asking someone if they want to come in for PTSD is not an approach we have. The approach we take is to offer them a gateway to more services.”
According to the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, about 30 percent of the veterans who were in war zones experience PTSD. The symptoms often start to surface three months after the veteran experiences a traumatic event, yet for some the onset can take years.
“There are quite a few who have PTSD and don’t even realize it,” Dillinger says.
In a 2007-2008 study titled “Community Re-Integration Problems and Treatment Preferences Among OIF/OEF Veterans” Nina A. Sayer of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn., found that 96 percent of OIF/OEF veterans expressed an interest in services to help them readjust to civilian life. If local veterans are any reflection of this national sampling, then the Vet Centers should expect no slowdown in the numbers coming through their doors.
Lori Maas is the OEF/OIF Program Manager who assists returning combat veterans at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. For many of the veterans she works with, the Vet Center was their point of entry into the VA system.
“Veterans need to have options as to where they can get their care from,” she says. “Some respond better to a smaller and more relaxed environment, others want a larger and more structured environment. It all depends upon their needs and who they are.”
Dale Warman, the public affairs officer for the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, commented on how the Vet Center helps veterans take advantage of their benefits.
“There are a lot of benefits available, but sometimes people can be overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of the system,” he says. “Now the taxpayers have made it a priority to give these men and women the care they deserve.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Web site, Philadelphia County alone spent $21.2 million in fiscal year 2008 on VA Services.
One of the Vietnam veterans who use the services at the Northeast Vet Center is Julian Turner. Turner, 60, was a
member of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Marines –a unit nicknamed ‘The Walking Dead’ because of the large number of casualties suffered from their many battles.
“I would rather come here than go to the VA (Medical Center),” he says. “This center is more veteran friendly. It’s very personal, very real, and very truthful –I feel like they are all members of family.”
Maurice Presbery, 54, is a Persian Gulf veteran who served as an Army combat engineer. He first came into the center in 1994 to seek information about his benefits, and now he spreads the word to others veterans about the how the Vet Center can guide them to help.
“One of the reasons why there are a lot of hopeless vets out there is because they don’t interact with people like Juan and his staff,” he says. “He is ex-military, and that works together hand in hand to show you the right way. Plus if he doesn’t know, he’ll find out – but there’s not much that he doesn’t know because he loves his job and stays on top of things.”