Veteran's Center director Jeanne Douglas stands in front of an artifact map of Vietnam carried for years by one of the center's clients.Jean Lotus/Staff

On Feb. 15, the Oak Park Vet Center celebrated the grand opening of its sparkling new facility at 1515 S. Harlem. After almost three decades, the center had outgrown its space at 155 S. Oak Park Ave. The VA partnered with the building owner to completely gut and rebuild the former insurance office. The results are impressive. “We’re incredibly happy with our new quarters,” said Team Leader Jeanne Douglas.

The new facility has ample parking and over 4,000 square feet of useable space. This includes a reception area, therapy rooms and a conference room for group meetings. There is also a large kitchen and dining area where the center’s couples group meets for potluck dinners. Douglas said their clients are very happy with the new facility, which is easily accessible by public transportation.

The Vet Center program was started in December 1979 because Vietnam veterans were not receiving the care they needed. Many were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and had not received a warm welcome home. The VA set up small, stand-alone centers, where Vietnam vets could get assistance in a non-institutional setting. During the intervening years, the mission of the vet centers has greatly expanded.

Douglas, who started as a counselor in 1981, said they later became responsible for veterans of every war, not just Vietnam. This is reflected by photos on the walls of the new center, which show veterans from the Civil War to the Afghan War. There’s also a framed map of Vietnam, annotated with points of interest by the soldier who carried it through the campaign.

Douglas estimated that half their clients are Vietnam veterans and half served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Douglas said the similarity between these wars is “scary.”

“They involved guerilla warfare,” she said, “where it wasn’t clear where the front lines were.”

The Vet Center started out treating veterans suffering from PTSD and caring for ex-military personnel who were victims of sexual assault. Their responsibility was later expanded to include military families of personnel killed in active duty. Three weeks ago, Congress voted to include assistance to the family members of any veteran.

The Vet Center is staffed by therapists, psychologists, social workers and licensed counselors. They do not provide any medical care, or prescribe medications. They offer counseling to individuals, groups and families. Douglas said they average about 300 visits per week and have had 14,500 clients come through their doors. The center offers job counseling and advises veterans on how to access their VA benefits, in addition to counseling PTSD victims.

Douglas explained that PTSD is caused by a specific traumatic episode.

“You’re in a situation,” she noted, “where you think you’re going to die and you feel helpless.” In order to survive these dangers, it’s necessary for combat veterans to repress their feelings. This is not healthy, especially when they return to civilian life.

PTSD sufferers may suffer depression, substance abuse and marital conflict. The Vet Center assesses each individual and provides counseling. If the client needs medication, or health care, they are referred to Hines VA Hospital.

The feelings soldiers repressed in combat can suddenly surface. The Vet Center provides a safe setting for vets to talk about their experiences and unburden their feelings.

“Many can’t talk about it anywhere else,” Douglas said. The counselors also teach clients methods to make their intrusive thoughts less powerful.

Over a hundred guests were expected for the grand opening, which started with a welcome by Robert Schuler, USMC, and closed with “God Bless America,” sung by Myron Stokes, USAF. Douglas and her staff are enthused by their new surroundings. The Vet Center will have even more resources to offer, when the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs moves in to share the facility.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.