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Vets Centers Offer Grief Counseling to Military Families

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 2, 2005 – In an unprecedented expansion of its traditional client base, the Department of Veterans Affairs is offering grief counseling to families of servicemembers who die while on active duty.

VA's Office of Readjustment Counseling offers the counseling services at its 206 community-based Vet Centers throughout the United States, including Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Greg Harms, program analyst for the counseling program, said 412 military family members - from spouses to children to siblings, parents and even grandparents - have taken advantage of the program as they struggle to cope with the loss of their 276 servicemembers. Most were killed during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Expanding its services to serve veterans' families represents "quite a leap and a real innovation" for VA, acknowledged Charles Flora, associate program director. But he calls the offering of bereavement counseling to family members "a natural extension of what we already do for veterans."

Who, Flora asked, is more deserving of VA assistance than families who have sacrificed their husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters or grandchildren in support of their country?

The program also serves families of reservists and National Guardsmen who die while activated for federal duty.

Some families seek the VA's counseling services immediately after learning of their loved ones' loss, while others wait until later, often after an important milestone such as a birthday, holiday or the one-year anniversary of the death has passed, Harms said.

"Everyone grieves differently. It runs the full gamut," he said. "There are no standard operating procedures for grief."

As a result, services offered run the full range, from one- or two-time visits to weekly sessions, depending on the family member's needs.

Regardless of the level of help needed, the VA service offers all its clients a common variable: a safe, caring environment where a professional bereavement counselor helps them work through the emotional and psychological issues associated with their loss.

"They're looking for support, looking for someone they can talk to who will listen and understand," Harms said. "A lot of what people need," added Flora, "is a place where they can sit down, take a breath and tell their story in a calm place where they can put things into perspective."

While all grief counselors are able to provide that service, the Vet Centers provide something many clients call a big plus: More than half the staff at the Vet Centers are veterans themselves who understand the military lifestyle as well as the tremendous sacrifice the families have made.

Counselors go out of their way to respond to families' needs, often meeting with them the same day they're contacted. They keep clinics open late to accommodate families' schedules and network with other service organizations to reach families in need. And in some cases, they even make home visits for families who might otherwise not be able to tap into their services.

"We've made a science of overcoming every obstacle to care," Flora said.

No medical diagnosis is required to seek help, and services are completely confidential. The only way a counselor can share information on a case is with written permission of the family member. "There's guaranteed clinical confidentiality," Harms said.

Flora said he considers the services the Vet Centers provides grieving military families "a sacred trust" that reflects the VA's commitment to veterans and their families. "We're meeting these families at one of the most traumatic points in their lives and helping to assist the family as it rebuilds itself," he said. "This is sacred business."

Referrals for grief counseling come through military casualty assistance offices, the VA and veterans service organizations. The largest number of referrals comes from TAPS, the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which offers what Harms calls "incredible peer-to-peer support" but no professional bereavement counseling services.

Families requesting more information or services can also contact the VA's Readjustment Counseling Service directly at (202) 273-9116 or by email at vet.center@hq.med.va.gov.

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