Joseph Shapiro, NPR
Counselor and vet Mike Colson (left) and Vietnam vet Ole Lindbo meet regularly over coffee.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR
The first Vet Centers were started almost 30 years ago by Vietnam veterans. The idea was that a veteran with a mental health problem will respond best to another veteran. Today, these storefront mental health clinics are trying to keep up with a new generation of soldiers returning from war.
The Vet Center in Seattle was one of the first to open, in 1979. It runs a therapy session every Tuesday called the Spirituality Group. Men sit in a circle with a Vet Center counselor and talk about how war hardened them and how they struggle now to find the good and joyous things in life.
Lynn Morlan was a 21-year-old Marine lieutenant, leading a platoon during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
"I was in country two days, and my platoon got hit in an ambush. I lost some men and some men wounded," Morlan tells the group. "I knew that day that I was not coming back from Vietnam alive. So I carried that through Vietnam and all of a sudden, miracles of miracles, I came back. I didn't get killed. And then I just continued to live my life that way... I know that death is just right around the corner, just ready to tap me right on the shoulder. So why plan? Why worry about a damn retirement?"
One young veteran in the group, Rob Densmore, sits at the edge of the circle. He flew jets in Afghanistan — the Navy's Prowler, a radar-jamming electronics warplane — but came home in 2004, when he developed life-stopping depression and PTSD.
"I was just unable to make even simple decisions, like if I was hungry or not, " Densmore says.
He's doing better today with help, including group sessions like this one. He prefers coming to the Vet Center because it's a small office suite, with only a half dozen staffers. At Seattle's Veterans Affairs hospital, he feels overwhelmed; it's so big and sprawling that the receptionist at the front desk gives visitors a map and marks their route. And it's hard for Densmore to see so many troubled older veterans, in the lobby and the halls, like ghosts of the future he fears most for himself.
"Just last week, I was at the VA and passed a guy walking down the hall who was a homeless amputee who lives, you know, on the streets below my apartment," Densmore says. "It's a very quick equation to this is who I am, this is my state, this is my lot, and it's not always a good picture that you see on the other side. I get good care at the VA. But you have to be tough sometimes to walk in there and see that."
It's different at the informal Vet Centers. The first thing you see is a sign above the front door in bold letters that says, "Welcome Home." These signs are a tradition, started because the Vietnam veterans didn't feel welcomed back when they returned from war.
Most Vet Center clients are still Vietnam veterans. Only 17 percent are vets who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, but that number is growing. Ron Boxmeyer runs the Seattle Vet Center and says most of the mental health problems are the same — whether the war was Vietnam or Iraq. But there are differences.
"What is really bad about this war is that people are going back three and four times; we had one person who went back five times," Boxmeyer says. "At least in Vietnam, I knew after 12 months I could get the heck out of the Army and I'd never have to go back again. But these people they come home, they go back to work, and re-establish their families and then, bang, they're back again."
There are other differences with the new veterans. There are more women. And more veterans with traumatic brain injuries. These injuries often haven't been diagnosed, but are causing confusion and depression.
Mike Colson is a readjustment counselor at the Vet Center. He was a Navy chaplain in Iraq and Afghanistan, before coming home with his own PTSD. Now he tirelessly counsels troubled veterans and their families. A few Vietnam veterans have brought their sons, recently back from Iraq, into the Vet Center. But Colson also meets clients outside of the center. He regularly catches up with Ole Lindbo at a neighborhood cafe.
Lindbo served at the end of the Vietnam War. The back of his leather jacket reads, "U.S. Army Veteran," and he wears a camouflage skullcap over his long, gray braid. Over coffee, he tells Colson about what he calls "the incident." Several weeks ago, in the family garage, his son Eli, a soldier back from Iraq, started hallucinating that he was under attack.
"He kept saying, 'There's Iraqis around us, they're gonna shoot us. They're gonna shoot us,'" Lindbo says. "For all I know, I could have been an Iraqi to him, and that's why I didn't want to let go of him." Lindbo held onto his son as tightly as he could, as Eli flailed about, lost in a violent flashback.
Therapists at the VA hospital can counsel a veteran. Vet Center therapists can treat their family, too.
Colson helped Eli get immediate treatment at the VA hospital. Since then, Colson and Lindbo meet regularly over coffee.
Last year, a congressional report — and a report from the VA — showed some Vet Centers were struggling to help all the veterans home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Earlier this year, Congress gave funding to open 23 new Vet Centers and hire more staff at the existing 209 centers. But the need keeps growing. More than 1.5 million troops have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at least one out of six come home with a potentially serious mental health condition. So far, 51,000 have gone for counseling at a Vet Center.