ROCHESTER — At 1867 Mt. Hope Ave., a POW-MIA flag hangs outside an inconspicuous building.
The modesty of this structure belies what it has seen, for it has witnessed as much war as any battleground, with one difference — the war seen here has been waged in the minds of combat veterans who have returned home.
This building is the Vet Center, and two of its staff members — Dr. A. Peter Ziarnowski, clinical psychologist, and Mary Anne Vitticore, readjustment counselor — said they want the region’s newest combat veterans to know the center is here. The Vet Center offers free, confidential counseling services to veterans of any branch of the military who have been in a war zone, as well as to their families.
Ziarnowski is a member of St. John the Evangelist Church on Humboldt Street, and Vitticore attends St. Dominic’s in Shortsville. The two staff members noted that their center helped put on a forum titled “Dealing with the Hidden Consequences of War” at St. John’s Feb. 12. The forum was attended by 35 people, and sponsored by the Worship & Discipleship Team of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches, an ecumenical organization to which the Diocese of Rochester belongs.
Ziarnowski said the center promoted the forum, in part, because it was concerned that veterans of America’s latest wars might not be aware that such free counseling services are available. Among the services the center offers is counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest itself in a combat veteran experiencing tension, anger, discouragement, nightmares and edginess.
“The quicker you can get help after you experience trauma, the better,” Ziarnowski said.
Every war takes its toll on veterans’ psyches, he noted, and the Iraq War is no different. For example, he said, much of the fighting in Iraq has been in the form of guerilla warfare, in which who is friend and who is foe is not always clear.
“Their nervous system is on a constant state of readiness,” he said of combat veterans from Iraq. He added that many such veterans have the added stress of knowing that even if they are sent home, they may be deployed to Iraq a second, third or even fourth time.
Both counselors noted that people can help veterans by learning more about what they have experienced.
“I think you have to do a lot of listening,” Ziarnowski said. He strongly urged concerned people not to ask insensitive questions of veterans or to unduly press for information from someone just back from a war zone. Strange as it may seem, some people even ask veterans if they’ve killed anyone, Ziarnowski said.
“That’s not a good way to start a conversation,” he said.
He urged people to ask veterans such open-ended questions as “what did you do there?” or “what was it like?” Be sincere and nonjudgmental, he added.
Vitticore said it was important to “go slow” and tell combat veterans that you’re ready should they ever want to talk about their experiences.
Ziarnowski noted that the Vet Center believes churches and religious congregations can serve a vital purpose in supporting veterans. Simple things like putting a blurb in a parish bulletin noting a veteran in a congregation has come home can send a message of support to military personnel, they said. Many veterans also appreciate regular letters from home, they said, praising schools that have organized their students to write to men and women serving overseas.
Families of combat veterans need to know that their loved ones are not the same persons they were before they went overseas, they added. Hence, they may need understanding as they readjust to such activities as raising their children, holding a civilian job and paying their bills. Some veterans are afraid to bond with people back home after experiencing the loss of comrades overseas, they said. Combat veterans can experience stress in their marriages, especially if their spouses misinterpret the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as personal attacks, they noted.
The bottom line is that there’s nothing abnormal about experiencing difficulty coming home to live in peace when you’ve been in war, they said.
“If you have readjustment problems from wartime assignments, you’re not crazy,” Ziarnowski said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A list of Vet Centers across the country may be found at www.va.gov/rcs. The Rochester center may be contacted at 585/232-5040.