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September/October 2018

How VVA Saved the VetCenters

The Vet Center program was established in 1979 as part of the Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Counseling Act. The Centers originally were set up in communities—not at Veterans Administration (VA) facilities where Vietnam veterans often had negative experiences seeking help for mental health issues—to provide peer counseling for those experiencing difficulties with readjustment.

Vietnam Veterans of America’s support for and work with the Vet Centers began in its earliest days. The first VVA chapter I joined, Chapter 16 in Columbus, Ohio, was formed by members of a Vet Center counseling group. After a member committed suicide, they decided they needed to reach out to veterans more and support each other. VVA was their means to that end.

The Vet Centers had to be reauthorized every year. That happened almost automatically until 1987 when the future of the Vet Center Program came under attack from VA Administrator Thomas Turnage. In January 1987 VA made a decision to relocate nine Vet Centers to VA facilities.

As VVA’s Secretary at the time, I contacted all the Vet Center team leaders to determine if these moves were advantageous to their veteran clients. Only the team leader in Wilmington, Delaware, had a positive reaction. He told me the facility they were getting was on the very edge of the VA campus and had better public transportation. I also found it interesting that the majority of the Vet Centers listed were in the district of—or the closest Vet Center to the district of—a Democratic member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
VA Administrator Thomas Turnage (1986-89) attacked the Vet Center program.
Photo: Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

As we discussed what VVA could do to counter this move, VVA Legislative Director at the time, Rick Weidman, wondered if we could get a court to issue a restraining order. VVA Legal Services went to work and in June we went to Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., and filed a lawsuit on behalf of VVA and five members of Congress alleging that such moves violated the congressional intent of the original legislation and would cause irreparable harm to veterans seeking community-based counseling. Bart Stichman, a lawyer with VVA Legal Services, and Julia Trotter, a VVA legal intern from American University, represented us against at least five attorneys from the Department of Justice. VA’s argument was that this was a “pilot program.”

On June 17 Judge Thomas Hogan issued a temporary restraining order against VA ordering them not to move Vet Centers until he could make a final decision on June 29. On that day Judge Hogan issued the final decision telling VA that the legislation did not allow “pilot programs.” He kept the restraining order in effect until October 1 when the program would need to be reauthorized.

That same day, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to bar VA from relocating Vet Centers to medical facilities. When the Vet Center Program was reauthorized that fall, it was made a permanent program and VA was ordered to inform Congress of any planned moves sixty days in advance of such plans to give members of Congress an opportunity to object to them.

After I was elected VVA President in 1987, Joan Lamb, VA Administrator Turnage’s assistant, asked me to come to a private meeting. This was unusual because I found it was always helpful to take another “witness” with me to such meetings, but I did go to this one alone. The first thing Lamb asked me was, “When is this post-traumatic stress thing going to be over so we can close the Vet Centers?” After explaining the basics of PTSD, I suggested she talk with the Vet Center staff. No further attempts were made during that administration to undermine the Vet Center Program.

I know from talking with thousands of Vietnam veterans and visiting many Vet Centers that this is a program that works. One of the most moving experiences for me happened when I was participating in a radio call-in program that I did every year in Phoenix, Arizona, close to Veterans Day. We were discussing the Vet Center Program when a World War II veteran called in.

He said, “I know they weren’t supposed to see me, but I went to a Vet Center. I’ve been in and out of VA psychiatric units a couple of times a year since I got out of service after the war, but I haven’t been back for two years because at the Vet Center they asked me what happened to me in the war. No one at the VA had ever asked me that. I told them about how my ship was sunk, and I spent days in a life raft watching my fellow sailors die. I owe the Vet Center my life.”

Over the years the Vet Center Program has expanded in numbers and in the number of veterans and families they serve. I am proud that VVA has supported the program—and also has been critical of the program when we saw deficiencies. It is a legacy we leave for those who served after us.





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