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Where the healing begins

Northeast Side center helps combat veterans through peer counseling

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Veterans helping veterans is the idea behind the San Antonio Northeast Vet Center, where those who experienced combat can find aid when they need it most, staffers said.

The readjustment-counseling services facility is located just outside Windcrest at 9504 Interstate 35 North, Suite 214.

It’s one of several outreach sites in Texas affiliated with Veterans Affairs.

“The first thing I want combat veterans and active-duty soldiers to know is that the Vet Center is very different from the VA,” said its director, John Uriarte, a retired Army officer and Iraq War vet. “There are no medical doctors or psychologists. We don’t do meds and we don’t diagnose. All of my counselors are veterans. Half of my counselors have been in combat.”

The personnel offer professional counseling and group therapy relating to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, social isolation, marriage and family, bereavement, military sexual trauma and other issues.

“We always paint a picture for every war vet that we are not only different from the VA, but that we are most likely the best and last place they will need to come for help,” Uriarte said. “We are not only here to help, but to listen to their stories for as long as they need to talk about it. Our credibility to our war veterans is that we are not only vets ourselves, but that we have also been to combat and know exactly what it was like.”

Many Vietnam War returnees frequent group therapy specially designed for them, sharing support and camaraderie.

“This place has been so positive for me and I wish I had found it sooner,” said a Marine veteran who served in Southeast Asia. “It has really made a difference and the other veterans here are like brothers.”

Many at the center carry battle scars both physical and mental.

“If you haven’t experienced (war), it’s very hard to relate to it,” said Charles Harrison, a center counselor and Vietnam veteran seriously wounded in action. “Having that common experience with a lot of the combat veterans that come in, young and old, that rapport is readily there.”

Harrison feels he possesses a unique perspective as a counselor, especially after overcoming his injuries.

“It helps me relate to those who have been wounded, to know where they’re coming from,” Harrison said. “Unless you’ve gone through it, it gives you that added amount of empathy, compassion and understanding that allows people to relate a little more readily.”

Numerous center attendees try to ease pain from emotional trauma.

“Today’s military veterans are seeking out coping skills and behavioral interventions over long-term pharmaceutical solutions,” said Jane Madison, a counselor at the center who served 22 years in the Air Force. “They are looking for brief therapies and applications that they can use so that they can get back to their busy lives.”

Many ex-military struggle with transitioning to a less structured civilian culture, Madison said.

“They want to learn how to manage their post-deployment symptoms so that they may work, go to school and be socially active,” she said. “As a veteran, my greatest joy is to see someone become more functional and be able to enjoy their post-military life.”

Vet Center personnel also reach out in the field, conducting many veteran-related community events and collaborating with military and military-supporting agencies.

“Our fellow veterans need help,” said Raymond Kaloplastos, the center’s outreach specialist and retired Army first sergeant. “They may have a tough time asking for Vet Center help. There is the stigma of counseling and the feeling that they are OK.”

Many service members believe counseling makes them look weak, the Iraq War veteran added.

Thus, the facility conducts various community-outreach programs to get in touch with soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and Coast Guard who might need assistance.

“I coordinate with and maintain contact with the community, the three military posts (Joint Base San Antonio), the Veterans Affairs and all government, nongovernment, and veteran organizations in the greater San Antonio area,” Kaloplastos said.

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