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Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
The Vet Center staff, from left: Jimmy Dickey, Rena Haupt and Tia Martin. Back row: Marty Job and Joseph Harding.
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Photo courtesy of Marty Job.
A 40-foot RV called the Mobile Vet Center serves the north and central Alabama region and is based out of the Vet Center’s Hoover office off Stadium Trace Parkway.
The U.S. military is sometimes referred to as a “band of brothers.” The staff at the Vet Center off Stadium Trace Parkway keeps that brotherhood and sisterhood alive after veterans return to civilian life.
The Vet Center is a federal government-run service providing individual, couple, family and group counseling for combat veterans and their families.
Center Director Tia Martin said they work with veterans on readjusting to home life after deployment, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and other issues. The Vet Center also provides counseling for all veterans, regardless of combat history, which includes sexual trauma experienced in the military.
“There are a lot of issues that come up as far as readjusting from a military life to a civilian life,” Martin said. “When a veteran returns, they can wonder what their role and function is in the home.”
And neither the veterans nor their families have to pay for any of it.
“They paid with their combat experience,” Martin said.
The Vet Center relocated from its downtown Birmingham location to Hoover, at 400 Emery Drive, in January 2016. Martin said the move was prompted by the finding that many Birmingham-area veterans were relocating to the suburbs, particularly in Hoover and Shelby County.
Their new location is not only closer but also has more parking and accessibility, which Martin said makes veterans more likely to seek their services.
The center sees about 1,200 veterans a year, which Martin said is an increase since they moved from downtown. These include veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Returning from a lengthy deployment — especially in dangerous combat situations — means veterans have different issues and needs from an average civilian seeking counseling.
“It’s not only the veteran that has issues and concerns coming back and readjusting, it’s the whole family,” Martin said.
Except Martin, everyone on the Vet Center staff is a combat veteran themselves, so they understand their clients’ needs better than most.
“A lot of guys come back and are dealing with issues. They’re going to talk to another veteran more openly, more so than they would even their own family,” said veteran outreach specialist Jimmy Dickey, a retired Army medic.
“The fact that I’m a veteran helps me relate to these guys a lot easier,” agreed fellow veteran outreach specialist and Air Force veteran Marty Job. “Every veteran has what we call war stories. It’s just funny, amusing things that happen during a service, and you get a room full of guys talking war stories, and you can do that all day. And at the end of it, everyone feels good; everyone feels great. It doesn’t matter if I’m Air Force or they’re Army. We’ve all trod the same ground.”
The Vet Center doesn’t just offer traditional counseling. They have a free “Guitars for Vets” program, where veterans can take home their own guitar and accessories after 12 lessons, as well as a map room where veterans of different conflicts can talk about their experiences with the help of maps to point out their deployment areas. Martin said some veterans simply come to sit in the lobby and drink a cup of coffee when they need a quiet place to go.
Other Vet Center services include a “telehealth” system to connect veterans with other support services anywhere in the country, and a 40-foot RV that serves as the Mobile Vet Center.
Job said the RV enables their staff to reach veterans anywhere in north and central Alabama, as well as four Mississippi counties, if they can’t make the trip to Hoover. It’s also equipped to serve as a mobile medical or command center unit in emergency situations.
“It’s just like a brick-and-mortar Vet Center, except we can go to the veteran in their hometown,” Job said.
Job is on the road in the Mobile Vet Center at least three days a week. Dickey said they often bring the MVC to public events to spread awareness, because people are more likely to notice the RV and come up to ask questions.
“I have the most comfortable seat in the office; my view changes every day, and I meet the best people in the country,” Job said.
Both Job and Dickey said they meet veterans every week with amazing — and sometimes heartbreaking — stories about their military service or coming home after deployment. Some of those vets can also point out the Vet Center staff member who, in their own words, saved their lives.
Martin said the center has a continual challenge to make sure the veterans who need their services know they exist. For veterans battling severe issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts, a lifeline can make all the difference.
“Our goal is to make sure every veteran knows that we’re here, that we will accommodate whatever their work schedule is, that it’s free,” Martin said. “We don’t want anyone struggling in silence.”
Martin added sexual trauma is unfortunately common in the military, particularly among men. Breaking the stigma to speak to someone about a traumatic experience is difficult, Martin said, but the Vet Center’s confidential help can be a lifesaver.
“When you talk about people that are struggling silently, that’s a big population that is really struggling silently. Particularly for men, a lot of times it speaks to issues of power, being emasculated or humiliated, so a lot of times men don’t want to seek services because of shame, so we make sure this is a safe place for that to happen,” Martin said.
Staff at the Vet Center is available not only during the daytime, but also evenings and weekends and accommodates walk-ins. The Department of Veterans Affairs also provides an after-hours hotline for veterans who need immediate help outside the center’s hours, at 877-927-8387. Call 212-3122 or go to vetcenter.va.gov for more information on Vet Center services.
“There will always be someone to assist a combat veteran. Always,” Martin said.