Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 18, 2011

Newsmakers: Facility opens for area veterans

BY JAMES RUSSELL
jrussell@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Editor's note: Newsmakers 2011 recounts and updates stories that made headlines in the Grand Traverse region during the past year. Today: Traverse City Vet Center makes it easier to get help. To read this series in full as articles are published, visit record-eagle.com/newsmakers.

Calvin Murphy thinks the Traverse City Vet Center could have changed his life.

Murphy returned from Vietnam in 1967, what he called a "difficult time to be a soldier." He said there were limited resources for soldiers coming home, and for decades he didn't get help for his own post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It would have been life-changing," Murphy said of the new vet center, which opened in January on U.S. 31 in Traverse City. "I never went into the VA system till 1993. I lived in the streets, crawled into a bottle, and when the situation was made clear why I had the problems I did, I got help through VA, but I had to travel. Now everything's within reach."

The Traverse City Vet Center is just one of six in the state that treats veterans with PTSD. Common symptoms include nightmares, anger, emotional numbing or disconnection, isolation, alcohol abuse and difficulty with relationships.

"Vet centers are placed outside of the bigger VA organization hospitals and medical complexes, so it's less intimidating," said Traverse City psychologist Mike Hayes. His clinic, Old Town Psychological Services, once contracted with the VA to provide these services, but now he refers veterans to the new center.

"The guys that have that disorder are very unique. They need to learn to rebuild trust. It's a very good format for it," Hayes said. "It's extremely important, and it has made a world of difference for vets in the region here."

Vietnam veteran Jack Pickard is the service director for the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans, and refers people to the vet center.

"This is separate from going into a medical facility where they just don't feel at ease. It definitely assists psychologically putting vets and their families in comfort and ease. It makes it easier to deal with their problems," Pickard said. "It's because of places like the Vet Center that it's easier for veterans to open up and say that there's a problem."

Pickard said there was a time when the stigma associated with mental illness kept returning soldiers from seeking help. If they did, there was a chance they'd be shipped off to a psychiatric facility downstate — a possibility few wanted to face.

"It's a lot better now, but there's still a stigma," he said. "You still have to really talk to a vet to say, 'All you've got to do is go talk to them.'"

Murphy continues to see a psychologist to deal with his PTSD, but he's glad the region now offers a resource for other veterans that's within reach.

"We just didn't understand it back in my time. Now there's such an awareness, people know what to look for," he said. "We've come a long way."