By Rashida Asante-Eccleston

This article previously appeared in Kentucky Opera’s OperaBill for Glory Denied, 2019

After returning from deployment, soldiers may encounter difficulty adjusting to civilian life. The Louisville Vet Center helps veterans make that transition with services available free of charge.

The Vet Center was started after recognition that many veterans from the Vietnam War were not accessing their benefits, partially a result of the negative stigma attached to accessing Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare. Lobbying by the Vietnam Veterans of America led to congressional mandates that put money aside specifically for this program. Although originally created for veterans of the Vietnam War, eligibility has expanded to include veterans of any future conflict. Vet Centers can be found in many cities across the country.

The Center focuses on “whole health,” a model of care that seeks wellness in all areas of life. As such, the staff helps veterans with any aspect of their lives in which they would like assistance, including the areas of mental health, financial and employment needs, and a sense of community. Staff at the Center will refer veterans to other VA organizations or additional community resources depending on client needs. Vet Centers were set up specifically in residential areas to create an inviting atmosphere, an environment reflected by a relaxed dress code and the presence of many veterans on staff.

Services offered at the Louisville Vet Center fall under readjustment services, a broad term for helping veterans reorient themselves into civilian life. Services at the Center are open-ended, which means that a veteran will not be denied after a certain number of appointments have passed. Service members who were not sent to combat zones but may have experienced secondary trauma or hardship related to their service can also receive care.

In addition to individual therapy, the Vet Center also offers group sessions to create a community for veterans with similar experiences. Group sessions may be based around a certain theme or combat area, while some contain veterans across eras with the goal of creating a social outlet. Marital and family counseling are also available for veteran families, as well as bereavement services for the family members of military personnel who died in service.

Accessing resources at the Vet Center also provides an element of privacy that might not be available if veterans receive care while on base, which would make their medical information potentially visible to their chain of command and may affect their eligibility for jobs within the military.

Deborah “Debbie” Sawyer works at the Louisville Vet Center as the Veteran Outreach Program Specialist, a position that puts her in touch with veterans in her community. Her journey in veterans’ services began when she was a member of the Indiana Army National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan. After returning home from deployment and struggling with issues related to finding employment, she sought out services at the Louisville Vet Center. As she got to know the staff and clientele and participated in the Shakespeare with Veterans program, she became interested in working for the Center itself.

“My favorite program that we offer here is the Shakespeare with Veterans Program,” Debbie said. Through this program, veterans meet weekly to discuss and perform Shakespeare. She quotes the co-founder of the program, Fred Johnson, on his thoughts about Shakespeare’s relation to the Center’s work: “No one speaks more directly to the warrior’s heart than William Shakespeare.” Shakespeare with Veterans “is the most diverse group that I’ve ever been a part of,” Debbie said, as the members of this program stretch across generations and combat areas.

“We’re here and we’re ready,” Debbie said. “I want the community at large and veterans to know that we’re here and we care.”