FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Bremerton's 61st Annual Armed Forces Day Parade May 16 featured the perennial community favorites - high school marching bands playing musical flourishes and motorcycle-club veterans rendering snappy salutes. But a newcomer caused the buzz in this year's celebration in a city that believes in taking care of its military members - active duty and veterans. The Northwest Washington community is home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility.

A white 38-foot vehicle with an eagle and the words "Vet Center" emblazoned on its sides in red, white and blue stars and stripes captured most of the attention while driving parade-speed down Pacific Avenue. In one four-hour slow-motion appearance, the motor coach introduced a major extension of the limits of the Department of Veterans Affairs' outreach to combat veterans west of the Cascades.

The mobile vet center joins 49 others across the country in an effort to find and help combat veterans and victims of military sexual assault who can't or won't make it to VA hospitals and centers. The motor coach will carry many of the services offered by the Tacoma Vet Center to the farthest reaches of Western Washington, to the places where studies suggest the greatest need resides. Franco Young of the Tacoma Vet Center estimated the veteran population in Washington at 650,000, among the highest in the country.

"If you think about it, the majority of the veterans who come back from combat and have issues with stress and anxiety, aren't in the cities," said Young, the readjustment counseling technician who drove the mobile center on its maiden voyage. "They're in these rural communities because they want to be by themselves, not in large groups of people."

"They move out so they don't have to be in the congestion of the city," said Elena McSwain, an outreach specialist at the same vet center.

The two outreach specialists said they were confident the need is great in the far-flung, hard-to-reach areas of the state, which is where the mobile vet center comes in.

The Tacoma Vet Center is showcasing the new vehicle in communities from Vancouver to Bellingham, already setting up appointments to offer its considerable services. Local newspapers will publish the times and places the one-stop vehicle will be in their areas. Whether at county fairs or unit reunions at VFWs, colleges or tribal reservations, the new vehicles enable counselors and outreach personnel to find those combat veterans in need.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is working to recruit and train counselors in post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual assault, contracting them to set up shop in small communities throughout the region and the country. These contract counselors - licensed social workers, mental health counselors and psychologists trained in dealing with PTSD - will coordinate with the mobile vet centers. MVC personnel will perform intake, fill out the initial forms and get the vets to the level of counseling they need. The design, however, is for a clinical staff member to accompany outreach personnel on the vehicle in two-person teams.

Young and McSwain are themselves Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans. Both said they can relate to the issues they hear from veterans, having wrestled with a few of their own. It is part, McSwain said, of why they are so invested in the mobile vet center and its capabilities.

Each $300,000 MVC houses two separate areas suitable for confidential counseling. The rear compartment doubles as a rolling business center, with fax, printer and copier. When fully operational, veterans will apply for benefits and have their documentation transmitted to VA on the spot.

The forward compartment features televisions and DVD players. Audio-visual and communications equipment in the MVC link to satellites wherever the vehicle goes. Notwithstanding its impressive interior, Young said, its outside appearance has already attracted considerable attention.

"A guy saw the vehicle and actually followed us down the highway," Young said.

Soon there will be no need to track down the MVC. Once the Vet Center establishes a list of rural counselors, it will establish a route to best serve its Western Washington customers.

Though its two foci are post-traumatic stress and military sexual assault, vet center counselors make related exceptions.

"We also do bereavement counseling in the vet center," McSwain said. "And we do couples and family counseling related to readjustment issues, with spouses and significant others."

The Tacoma Vet Center is located at 4916 Center Street, Suite E.

Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri June 19th, 2009 at 18:30