Vet Centers across the country have helped veterans and their families make the transition between military and civilian lives since 1979. The Lewiston Vet Center opened in 1993 but veterans from the Rumford area don’t have to travel that far.

Every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the Vet Center comes to Rumford. They have an office on the third floor of the VA Rumford Clinic, which is a large white building across from the Rumford Hospital on Franklin Street.

The Rumford outreach has been staffed for seven or eight years. Like Vet Centers across the country, the staff is primarily veterans and includes combat veterans.

Sandra Smith, a Navy veteran of the first Gulf War and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is the Team Leader at the Lewiston Vet Center and also does the Rumford outreach.

She explained, “Bill Malay, the counselor who worked in Rumford for several years, retired at the end of 2013. He was a Vietnam veteran and they are now at that age where most of them are retiring. Rather than upset my staff’s schedules at Lewiston, I started coming up to Rumford. The area and the group here have really grown on me!”

The Vet Center is a specialty mental health clinic for combat veterans. They have three major groups of clients: veterans with war zone eligibility, all veterans who have been victims of sexual trauma or harassment, and immediate family members who have lost a loved one on active duty. The Vet Centers even see active duty troops.

Smith said, “One thing veterans appreciate about Vet Center services is our strict confidentiality. We will not share information with anyone without the veteran’s written permission. We even need their permission to share counseling records with another branch of the VA. In the case of active-duty personnel, troops can be assured that their information will never be shared with their chain of command.”

Confidentiality is an important hallmark of Vet Centers and it helps build trust with the veterans they serve.

“The only exceptions are circumstances when a client is deemed to be in imminent danger to him or herself, or to someone else,” Smith explained. “We are also court-mandated, as are all counselors, to report cases of child abuse or neglect. In these situations, the only information released is the minimum needed to keep people safe.”

Trust is particularly important in dealing with sexual trauma or harassment. In terms of numbers alone, more men are sexually assaulted in the military than women. But if based on percentage of those serving, proportionally more women are assaulted.

Smith explained, “Predators are predators – in the military or in the civilian world. There is an additional traumatic element inherent in military sexual assault; in that you are assaulted by someone you have to trust with your life.”

The Vet Center offers both individual and group counseling sessions. Marriage and family counseling is also available if issues relates directly to the veteran’s service.

Readjustment to civilian life after deployment to a war zone can vary from mild and brief to severe and lifelong. Crisis Lines are available 24/7 to all veterans at 1-877-927-8387 (Vet Center) and 1-800-273-8255 (VA Mental Health), where you can talk with a counselor who is also a veteran.

Symptoms of readjustment issues may include irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, difficulty trusting, shutting down, being jumpy, unwanted memories, isolation, loss of interest and low tolerance of everyday stress. These issues may cause disturbed sleep, survivor guilt, increased substance use and employment issues.

If a veteran has any of these issues, help is a phone call away.

“Call us at 783-0068 and say you would like to see a counselor,” Smith urged. “The staff will ask you some questions over the phone so we will understand what services you’re interested in and can confirm your eligibility. You will be asked to bring a copy of your DD-214 (your discharge). If you don’t have a copy, we’ll help you get it. “

She continued, “That information is passed on to me. I’ll decide to see you or refer your case to another counselor at the Vet Center. Either the assigned counselor or I will call you for an appointment within a week.”

Currently, the Vet Center in Lewiston has a staff of 11. The counselors include two Naval aviation maintenance technicians, an Air Force marriage and family therapist, an Army infantry Iraq veteran, and two non-veterans. They have three additional Army veterans of Iraq among their front office and outreach staff.

Smith concluded, “As the need for services has increased, the resources are there. I’m in the process of hiring two more counselors now, including a Panama combat veteran and a Navy corpsman.”

She urges, “People need to remember that VA services are not charity or a gift. It’s an earned benefit for the services military men and women provided. The Vet Centers pride ourselves on being less red-tape bound.”

Sandra Smith joined the U.S. Navy for six years at the age of 29, a little older than most recruits. Prior to her service she was a bookstore manager.

Her motivation to enlist came from a family tradition. She explained, “My grandfather was in the merchant marine throughout World War II. My father was in submarines during Korea. Joining the Navy was something I had always planned to do.”

After her training as an aviation electronics technician, she was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, serving in a patrol squadron for 4.5 years. During that time, she deployed four times for six months each. Her unit deployed to Puerto Rico, then three times to Sicily, with additional detachments to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. From Sicily, her unit was the first patrol squadron to respond to events in Bosnia in 1992 (continuing in 1993-94, & 1995), and provided air missions to Somalia in 1993, as well.

While she worked as an electronics technician, Smith discovered her current calling.

“I was a little older than most people in my shop,” Smith explained. “I found that people talked to me.”

That gave her the idea that she might be good at counseling.

Smith said, “I was able to use credit from my Navy technical schools, mostly science and math, to finish my degree in psychology. After my discharge, I went to graduate school using my VA benefits and earned a Master’s degree in social work.”

After her graduate work, she was a counselor at the Lewiston Vet Center from 1997 to 2004. She also worked at the Naval Air Station as a counselor. She returned to the Vet Center in 2010, becoming Team Leader in January 2013.

Smith concluded, “I like to think, as a social worker, we tend to see the bigger picture — how every aspect of a person’s current situation, their environment, and previous life experiences all come together to affect how they’re doing in the present. It’s very rewarding.”

Smith is available by appointment every Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Rumford. Contact her in Lewiston the other weekdays. The Vet Center has an office on the third floor of the VA Rumford Clinic, which is a large white building across from the Rumford Hospital on Franklin Street.


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