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Our nation hasn’t always done right by our veterans returning from combat. Since 1979, Vet Centers have provided outreach and services for returning veterans transitioning beyond the military to a civilian life and career.

The early Vet Centers were staffed mainly by Vietnam veterans, offering counseling and other assistance to fellow Vietnam-era veterans. Since the early 1990s, services have gradually been opened to combat veterans of other eras, many of whom had never received treatment for the problems with which they have struggled on their own. The Prince George’s County Vet Center, which opened on Malcolm Road in Clinton in 2011, still mainly serves clients who are Vietnam veterans, with a staff of six and an annual budget of less than $700,000.

“You give up enough when you go to war. Why give up more when you take the uniform off?” said Prince George’s County Vet Center Team Leader Dr. Fred Lockard, who explained that many service members who are still serving on active duty have concerns about seeking readjustment counseling or treatment for combat-related mental health concerns, often out of fear of stigma or damage to their career.

“After retirement, it’s a huge realization,” Lockard said. “We don’t have to report to a unit commander. If they call to ask if someone is receiving services here, we just say, ‘Who? Sorry...’ and hang up. We’re not even reporting to the mainstream VA.”

Though the PGCVC emphasizes treatment and services for veterans, active duty service members who are in the process of getting out of the military are also eligible for services. At some point, Lockard said, there is a possibility that the Department of Defense will allow Vet Centers to expand their services to offer them to all active duty service members.

“We want to be here to help them,” Lockard said.

The PGCVC offers six support groups for Vietnam veterans, an evening support group for Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation New Dawn/Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Persian Gulf War, a female veterans support group with an emphasis on military sexual trauma, an early evening post-traumatic stress disorder education group, a monthly family education and discussion group, and an early evening insomnia group.

“Ninety-nine percent of people with PTSD have sleep issues,” said Lockard.

Other groups that focus on stress or that cater to veterans of the Korean conflict or other wars are also in the works.

Many PGCVC clients do not want to participate in group sessions, at first.

“People with PTSD don’t like crowds and big groups of people, so they get forced to deal with that in group sessions. It’s good,” Lockard said.

Beyond group counseling, the PGCVC also offers individual counseling for veterans and their family members, family counseling for military-related issues, bereavement counseling for families who experience an active duty death (whether or not the death was combat-related), military sexual trauma counseling and referral, substance abuse assessment and referral, employment assessment and referral, VA benefits screening and referral and screening and referral for medical issues including traumatic brain injury and depression. Non-combat veterans can be seen up to three times before being referred to other sources of services and treatment, but combat veterans are eligible for free services of all kinds for as long as they want them.

“It’s not easy to deal with the trauma. They want to bury the trauma, they don’t want to talk about it, but that’s how you make it go away--or at least come to terms with it,” Lockard said. “It’s free and forever, covered by their DD-214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty).”

Lockard said that many of their clients are able to be seen very quickly--sometimes the day they walk in.

“There’s no time limit,” Lockard said, even for Vietnam-era veterans who may have longstanding PTSD problems which have never been properly addressed elsewhere. “We won’t turn you away, you won’t wait weeks, and sometimes we can handle things right then.”

Modern Vet Centers also offer psychosocial outreach and treatment for eligible family members, if the veteran is receiving services and has approved family members’ participation in treatment as part of the veteran’s treatment plan. Treatment is available at the Malcolm Road office and at satellite offices in Lexington Park, Md. and in the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home. Plans are in the works to introduce onsite services on base at Joint Base Andrews, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and at Prince George’s Community College.

Each treatment plan is unique, based on regular assessments. Most clients come in at least weekly to start, and taper off their treatment as symptoms subside and triggers become more manageable. Lockard said that the team aims to create a laid-back, informal, supportive, welcoming and calming environment, and works with clients for as long as their services are needed. It’s a natural fit, since most of the team at the PGCVC are veterans, and some have combat experience and readjustment issues of their own.

“They’ll drop out, we’ll close their case and they come back later,” Lockard said. “It’s hard. We understand.”