Veterans helping veterans

Published 9:37 am Monday, September 22, 2014

Veterans Gary Brown (left) and Daniele Brooks pose beside the VA’s Mobile Vet Center as they made a stop in Windsor on Friday.  The Vet Centers on wheels are a way of bringing word of VA services to veterans in rural areas. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

Veterans Gary Brown (left) and Daniele Brooks pose beside the VA’s Mobile Vet Center as they made a stop in Windsor on Friday. The Vet Centers on wheels are a way of bringing word of VA services to veterans in rural areas. Staff Photo by Gene Motley

WINDSOR – Much has been made lately about what happens – and doesn’t happen – when veterans go to the Veterans Administration, but many don’t realize there’s also a program in place where the VA comes to you.

North Carolina boasts of six Vet Centers, all administered by the VA.  But despite their regional location (the closest to the Roanoke-Chowan is located in Greenville), for some vets it’s still a long drive to access the many available VA services.

When those services come to you on wheels, life gets a little more convenient.  That’s the purpose of the state’s two Mobile Vet Centers (MVC’s) administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The vehicles resemble super-sized family RV’s and are driven to far-reaching rural areas to provide veterans with services such as counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Military Sexual Trauma, bereavement counseling, marriage and family counseling, and resources like VA benefits information and suicide prevention referrals.

“We travel the entire state of North Carolina doing outreach to contact more veterans in the rural areas and letting them know what we provide,” said retired US Air Force veteran Daniele Brooks.

Brooks, along with US Army and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran Gary Brown, pilot the MVC headquartered in Greenville.

Thursday, the MVC was in Windsor at the Food Lion parking lot just off US-13 bypass making it available to any veterans or families of veterans that may have had inquiries about VA services.  The MVC plans a trip to the Hertford-Gates counties area in November and made a previous stop in Northampton County last May.

“We’re really an extension from the Greenville Vets Center,” Brooks added. “We do individual counseling and group counseling on a walk-in basis.  It’s a moving billboard; we advertise what we do going up and down the road.”

The VA acquired the RV’s in 2008 and Brooks and Brown have worked together as a team since 2009.  The VA has a mobile outreach program called “VA-2-Vets” running from Mar. 4, 2014 to Mar. 4, 2015 hoping to get out as much of the word to reach and educate as many of America’s roughly 22 million veterans as possible in a year’s time.  They will concentrate much of their efforts in Greenville’s 27-county service area.

“In a way if you look at it we recruit for all six Vets Centers from east to west (borders) in North Carolina,” said Brown.  “Eventually they (veterans) will have to travel to Greenville, but they (the VA) will get their first assessment from us.  We try to give them the navigation of where they would have to go in the VA.”

Brown says the group travels extensively across the state.  A sampling of their schedule just this past week had them in Goldsboro on Monday, Jones County on Tuesday, in-house at Greenville on Wednesday, before arriving in Windsor on Thursday.  Like community-based Vet Centers, MVC’s services help veterans make the difficult transition between military and civilian life.

“We try to be a major resource,” adds Brooks. “We try to link veterans to whatever services they’re in need of or at least give them a contact person they can speak with regarding their situation.  Even if we just meet one veteran here in Windsor, that is the sole purpose of our visit.”

Brown and Brooks have assisted vets with services such as acquiring duty forms, starting a claim, locating missing medical records, and enrollment in the VA health-care system.  And sometimes, it’s not just the veteran who comes forward.

“You may not have the veteran themselves who comes in,” Brooks related. “You may have the spouse or family member, or significant other, coming in seeking information about the family member they may be dealing with.”

The important thing, they say, is getting more education and taking it back to the veteran.

Remember, a lot of times with the veteran who has PTSD they’re normally not going to be the one who steps up to the plate,” Brooks cautioned. “It’s sometimes going to be the family member who gets educated and takes the information back to the veteran.  They may not come in the next day, but at least they have the information knowing that the services are there for them.”

But there is still the VA’s image problem of late. This year alone the agency is reeling from an onslaught of criticism about its inability to quickly reduce its backlog of disability claims and for its lavish spending.

“This is the VA’s way of saying ‘you may not want to come to us, but we will bring our services to you’,” Brooks claimed. “We’ve saved you the trouble of coming to us and it’s all a part of outreach.”

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the red-tape,” added Brown. “You have that one-on-one with us talking to you live and taking whatever amount of time it takes for us to get the understanding of what you need.  Whatever your needs are from us we try to provide it, and that’s the one-on-one you don’t get from the telephone or even going to a hospital.  I think that’s the difference of being in the community and serving the community as veterans ourselves serving veterans to give them that extra comfort level we can provide you can’t get on the telephone.”

The duo say a veteran’s service time does not matter if a vet is seeking assistance.  They need not bring anything with them, just come to the RV and prove you’re a veteran.

“Whether you served six months or 30 years we’re going to take the time out to figure out what you need and what you want,” Brown says. “You sit down and tell us and your story defines how we can help you.”

Brown and Brooks closed by quoting a line from the movie, “Forrest Gump”, which was about a veteran’s journey through life.

“Our work is like a box of chocolates,” said Brooks. “You never know what you’re going to get.  We come prepared whether it’s a thank-you, or it’s a crisis. We come prepared to serve that veteran in whatever capacity we need to service them in.”