Between Two Worlds

Tampa Vet Center is the VA's frontline for returning soldiers.

"The warrior is always in hope that there will be no more wars." —Steve Fletcher, team leader at the Tampa Vet Center

Sitting in his office at the Tampa Vet Center, it´s all Steve Fletcher can do to speak softly. He whispers, but not like a kid with a secret. Steve Fletcher whispers like a kid who has done something so great he doesn´t quite know how to tell you what it was.

Fletcher is about as nondescript as the storefront he works out of. Wearing a pair of jeans and a green ¨Vet Center¨ golf shirt, he doesn´t want to be mistaken for a doctor. And the Center, which sits well off the street in a one-story brick office building at 8900 N. Armenia in Tampa, doesn´t want to be mistaken for a hospital. That´s the point. The Tampa Vet Center (TVC) is a place where vets can go for help without having to deal with white coats and paperwork.

The TVC, which sees an average of 400 clients a month, is a modern-day version of the community centers that began popping up around the country in the wake of the Vietnam War. These centers, now a part of the Department of Veterans Affairs, led the way in recognizing and counseling PTSD sufferers. Though TVC works in tandem with Tampa Bay´s two largest VA hospitals, its mission is still to offer an alternative to the hospitals´ long lines, crowded parking lots and endless paperwork.

It is a small operation; four combat vets sitting in a quiet office, willing to talk. And as veterans suffering from PTSD begin to pour out of Iraq, Fletcher and the TVC often act as first responders.

¨Someone needs to acknowledge their trauma,¨ says Fletcher. ¨And it needs to be another combat vet.¨

Fletcher — who, like many VA counselors, is a Vietnam vet — keeps mementos of that war around his office. A North Vietnamese army hat, complete with a small red star, sits on the top of the wooden bookshelf behind the desk. On the shelf below it is a North Vietnamese flag. And below that, isolated off to the side, is a grenade.

Though TVC treats veterans of every American conflict since WWII, the majority of its clients were in Vietnam. And for many veterans of that war, the current conflict in Iraq has revived memories of what they went through 30 years ago.

¨Anytime you have a war and it´s in the media, any combat vet is going to be affected,¨ Fletcher says. ¨You´re being reminded of your trauma.¨

That´s what makes Steve Fletcher´s job a challenge. He is a counselor, yes, but he is also a soldier who needs counseling. It might be complicated, but that dual understanding allows Fletcher to know what the men and women who seek his help are looking for.

He knows, for example, that they don´t want to be kept waiting. Not because they´ll become impatient, he says, but because many vets carry so much survivor guilt that even putting themselves in front of another vet in line is too much to bear. He also knows to take his time before asking for a name or address during a vet´s first visit.

And Fletcher knows to keep the place quiet. A white noise machine sits in the hallway just outside his office. If a client seems a little jittery, Fletcher will walk outside and flip the machine on. You can´t just offer anxiety support groups and marriage counseling and expect vets to open up. The little things, Fletcher says, are what make the difference.

But sometimes a soldier´s problems are just too big. Fletcher is not a psychiatrist and therefore can´t prescribe the anti-anxiety medicines often used to treat PTSD sufferers. If vets need medication or more intensive therapy, Fletcher will refer them to larger programs at James Haley or Bay Pines.

Like the hospitals, Taylor´s program could use more funds and more staff. But he´s determined to help vets, no matter what comes down from above.

¨They could cut our budget,¨ says Fletcher, who often carries a double load of clients, ¨and we would still be doing the work. Because you´ve got dedication out here. Money doesn´t affect us that much — we´d use our own money to reach out to these guys.¨

At his desk, Fletcher folds a worn black-and-white photocopy in half to try and explain what it´s like to come home from war. On one side of the fold is a photograph of half of a young man´s face. He´s a clean-shaven civilian.

Fletcher flips the picture over, revealing the other half of the same man´s face — only this time he´s a soldier, his face stubbled and dirty.

Then Fletcher unfolds the whole picture, revealing the striking image of a man clearly caught in two worlds at once. ¨We want to find this guy again,¨ he says, pointing to the civilian. Then he points to the soldier. ¨But we know this guy is never going to leave.¨

He knows because Steve Fletcher, the soldier, never left either.

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