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Mobile service gains traction with rural combat veterans

Andrew Meyer (right) listens as Chris Roemhildt talks about how this recreational vehicles is used to vet military veterans in touch with services they need. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Chris Roemhildt (left) and Andrew Meyer deploy the awning on the recreational vehicles used to help get vet military veterans in touch with services they need. The Duluth Vet Center received the RV in May. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Parked and humming in the lot of the Duluth Vet Center last week was a land whale of an RV emblazoned with patriotic decals, including the emblems for all branches of the armed services.

"It catches the eye, doesn't it?" said Christopher Roemhildt, an Army veteran and outreach specialist for the Vet Center — an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs that conducts itself as a sort of special forces for outreach and readjustment counseling.

The recreational vehicle is the latest tool in the Vet Center's outreach mission. Picked up last May in Missouri, the RV already has garnered more than 3,000 miles while touring northern Minnesota and all the way down to Pine City.

"We'll post up anywhere they'll have us," Roemhildt said. "Wal-Mart lots, community events ..."

On Monday, the RV was in International Falls. This Friday, it will be outside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans' annual Stand Down for Veterans, a bonanza event offering services of all kinds for area veterans.

"We drive around talking to the vets rather than the vets having to drive long distances," Vet Center social worker and Army veteran Dustin Oosten said. "We have access to get directly into the VA system and enroll them. We could be in International Falls and enroll someone."

With eight staffers, including seven combat-deployed veterans — many of whom are now licensed counselors — the Vet Center likes to consider itself the ideal entry point into support services for veterans.

Located in the airpark, the Vet Center prides itself on the fact they meet veterans on the phone with a real voice — one with empathy and understanding that comes with having also served.

"Any war zone — Panama, Grenada, Vietnam," Roemhildt said, explaining that all a person needs is their discharge paperwork.

"DD 214," he added, saying anybody who has ever served will know what that is.

The Vet Center RV is part of a program that began in 2010, with the intention of putting one mobile unit in every state. Minnesota's first RV was located — and still is — in Brooklyn Park. But when the Duluth Vet Center officials found out an RV in Kansas City, Mo., was set to be mothballed and replaced by a new model, they jumped at the chance to bring it home. They changed the alternator and did some other mechanical work, and soon veterans in far-flung Canadian border towns like Baudette, Warroad and Roseau were being reached like never before.

Since going online earlier this summer, the RV has been on the road 20 days out of every month.

The RV stopped last week in Two Harbors, where Oosten does readjustment counseling for combat zone veterans every Monday. Oosten said that in Lake County they work with a lot of Vietnam vets.

"What we are finding with the Vietnam vets is when they retire, some of their anxiety and depression returns." Oosten said. "It spikes because sometimes some of the vets will immerse themselves in their work and all sorts of things, but then when they retire they have too much head time. Memories come back and the guilt sometimes sets in."

Avoidance, said Oosten, is one of the signature symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only do veterans avoid talking about their experiences, but they often avoid contact with other people and medical visits as well. Many veterans have difficulty going into a VA hospital and often do not trust the system in place there.

That's where the Vet Center comes it. Its employees dress casually, can wear beards and, generally, try to be inviting.

"We're not supposed to look too clinical," Roemhildt said. "The white coat syndrome doesn't work too well."

In addition to being versed in working with people experiencing PTSD, counselors with the Vet Center conduct anger management, addiction recovery, bereavement counseling, marriage and family therapy and meet with people who have experienced sexual trauma in the military. Even aboard the RV, a counselor can find privacy by sliding shut a heavy wooden door.

No Vet Center employee has packed his clothes in the RV's closets more than Andy Fellows. He's been known to be gone for more than 60 hours at a time, say his coworkers. An Iraq War veteran, Fellows initially sought out services for himself in 2011 on the advice of a neighbor who was a Vietnam veteran. The neighbor encouraged him to seek out services after hearing from Fellows' family members about difficulties Fellows was having.

After engaging in services and completing his degree at the College of St. Scholastica, Fellows was hired to work with the Vet Center.

Now driving the RV and doing outreach in rural Minnesota, he is convinced of the positive impact of the mobile Vet Center.

"We can extend Vet Center services to rural communities," Fellows said. "The VA can come to these guys in their communities and provide them services. This vehicle is already demonstrating that and I think it's just going to get better."

Friday in Duluth

The mobile Vet Center is scheduled to be at the Stand Down for Veterans event Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Jamey Malcomb reports for the Lake County News-Chronicle.