Striving to Help War Veterans Reconnect to Their Lives and Break a Social Stigma


Roger Paulmeno is a combat veteran and a team leader at the White Plains Vet Center.Striving to Help War Veterans Reconnect to Their Lives and Break a Social Stigma
by Lisa W. Foderaro

Left, Roger Paulmeno is a combat veteran and a team leader at the White Plains Vet Center.

WHITE PLAINS — As young veterans return from their dusty, nerve-racking tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are bringing home a host of psychological wounds, ones that neither show their face to the public nor rise to the level of a brain injury. It may be trouble reconnecting with high school buddies, difficulty focusing at work, flashbacks or grief.

The federal government uses the term “readjustment” to refer to the catch basin of psychological ills plaguing today’s veterans as they return to their former lives…


Since the late 1970s, the Department of Veterans Affairs has urged veterans to seek help through its national network of counseling centers.

With an announcement in February that it would open 23 additional sites, called Vet Centers, including four in New York State, the department tacitly acknowledged that the global war on terror was straining the system.

More than 200 existing centers offer free, confidential counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, sexual trauma, marital stress, bereavement and other issues.

Even though the war in Iraq could well be over by the time some of the new centers open, federal officials say they expect the need for such counseling to persist.

“We can’t forget that post-traumatic stress disorder means ‘post,’ and it can develop years later,” Alfonso R. Batres, who oversees the Vet Centers, said in a phone interview. “We know the epidemiology of this.”

Officials in Orange County and federal lawmakers had pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs for a center in the Hudson Valley; veterans living there must now drive to White Plains or Albany to reach a Vet Center.

The federal department agreed and chose Middletown, N.Y., for one of the centers; it is scheduled to open in 2008. The other new centers in New York are slated for Binghamton, Watertown and Nassau County.

“We had one marine come back, and he committed suicide,” said Anthony Zippo, director of the Orange County Veterans Service Agency. “We don’t want that to happen again.”

Representative Maurice Hinchey, whose district includes Orange County and Binghamton, said, “These facilities closer to home are very important to help people readjust their physical and emotional circumstances so they can try to get back to a normal life.”

One component of the Vet Centers is outreach, which county veteran officials say is critical because many veterans are unwilling to seek help, even though their families say they are suffering.

Mr. Zippo said that one woman, a soldier who was sexually assaulted in Iraq, was too anxious to drive when she returned home. A young man, who recently returned from Iraq, spends all his time in his bedroom on his computer.

Federal and county veteran officials say that many new veterans are worried that their jobs will be jeopardized if employers find out they have emotional or psychiatric problems. But Dr. Batres said that the Vet Centers, created in 1979, were set up with the promise of absolute confidentiality. The centers were developed to help Vietnam War veterans who were struggling emotionally years after the war had ended, he said.

“We have minimal barriers and almost no bureaucracy,” Dr. Batres said. “It’s a nonmedical setting.”

He added, “A vet can come in without an appointment and be seen that day. It’s a safe environment in that we have high confidentiality and a strong emphasis on informed consent.”

At the Vet Center in White Plains, the counselors make regular pitches to National Guard and Reserve units as they return to the United States. One counselor spent a weekend in March at Camp Smith in Westchester, where he had contact with more than 70 new combat veterans.

In 1996, the counseling services at the Vet Centers were extended to combat veterans from all wars. And in recent years, the Vet Centers have opened their doors to members of the National Guard and Reserve, for a maximum of two years after their return home — a reflection of their rapidly expanding combat role in the war in Iraq.

In White Plains, about 40 percent of the counseling sessions are for post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D., with symptoms that include anger, anxiety, depression, difficulty trusting others, feelings of guilt, hyper-alertness, grief, intrusive thoughts, social alienation and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

Mental-health professionals anticipate more demand for their services in the future. “The trauma of this war may not hit them for months or years,” said Roger Paulmeno, a combat veteran and a Vet Center team leader.

More often than not, it is a family member who first contacts the Vet Center. Mr. Paulmeno says he has received calls from family members who say that their loved one is “angry or having difficulty sleeping” or “sitting in the dark with all the shades down.” The center also offers couples therapy and family counseling.

Sometimes, veterans show up in the waiting room, saying they just need some water or to use the bathroom. Others come in, sit for a while, pick up a copy of Army Reserve Magazine or Air Force Times and then leave.

“I don’t care what they come in for — anything to get them through the door,” Mr. Paulmeno said. “We don’t pressure them into anything. The Iraq vets do the same thing that the Vietnam vets did in terms of how they approach treatment. There’s still a stigma.”

Some county officials who work with veterans of the war in Iraq have expressed frustration that they cannot do more outreach for want of names. They say that they cannot obtain the identities of new veterans living in their counties from state or federal agencies, which cite privacy laws and security concerns.

“That’s a major problem for us,” said Thomas Meier, director of the Westchester County Veterans Service Agency. “I would guess we’re seeing less than 10 percent of the returning veterans.”

Others say they believe that many more Iraq war veterans need mental-health treatment than are getting it.

“When I’ve got a kid who comes in here at 21, who looks like he’s 15, and he’s a two-year hard-core combat vet, I’ve got a concern,” said Terry Breitenstein, director of the Ulster County Veteran’s Service Agency. “He’s seen things that we really don’t want our 21-year-olds to see.”


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