Santa Fe center helps veterans connect
By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: July 8, 2019
SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — After suffering a breakdown due to post-traumatic stress disorder, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Rosemary Morales-Pacheco began driving aimlessly down Cerrillos Road.
She wasn’t sure, at first, where to go for help that day in 2010.
Then she thought of the Santa Fe Vet Center, where the staff provides support for military veterans seeking anything from specialty veteran license plates to suicide prevention counseling.
While serving as a diesel mechanic in support of ground combat operations in the Gulf War, Morales-Pacheco saw her share of carnage. She still recalls the effects of the “mortars, always mortars coming in.”
And she still visits the local veterans center, operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“This is where I go to get better on days that are hard,” Morales-Pacheco, a retired state employee, said on a recent weekday at the center, where a group of Vietnam-era veterans were playing music. “I feel better knowing it’s here, knowing that I can walk in.”
At a time when a high number of veterans in the state have been taking their own lives — the VA ranked New Mexico fourth in the nation for its rate of veteran suicides in a 2018 study — the center is a lifeline for many, said Robert Eisenberg, a counselor there who helps vets readjust to civilian life.
Veterans often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, family challenges and finding gainful employment after their military service ends.
“There’s a feeling of unity for them when they come here,” Eisenberg said. “One vet may say, ‘I’m struggling with my marriage,’ and another says, ‘Hey, so am I.’ Then they start opening up. There’s a feeling of being in the same situation as another warrior. Here, we become each other’s wingman.”
The military metaphor is appropriate in a place where veterans — particularly those who saw combat — learn quickly they can rely on each other in a way their civilian friends and family members may not understand.
And they can remember together.
Sergio Rivera, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, recalls Army recruiters coming to visit his high school in Tierra Amarilla to speak with boys in his graduating class. One recruiter, he said, told the teens: “You know where you’re going after you graduate? You’re going to Vietnam.” Sure enough, they did.
Rivera doesn’t like to talk with strangers about what he did and saw in combat. But at the vet center, surrounded by other military veterans, he’ll let loose.
“With family, friends, you won’t hear it,” he said. “We don’t talk about war around them. But here, we cry. We laugh. We scream. Here, we can let it all out.”
Counselors at the center, which opened on Brothers Road in 1983, work carefully and systematically to gain the trust of veterans — who often are reluctant to open up — by first talking about the basics: Have they applied for their military benefits or for a veteran license plate? Are things OK at home? Do they need a place to live, a counselor to talk with, a source of support?
“A lot of times there’s something boiling underneath all that,” said Daniel Edgerton, another readjustment counselor at the center. “If we sense something else is going on, we ask direct questions. We dig into it. And that may include, ‘Are you thinking about harming yourself or taking your own life?’ ”
The counselors can connect veterans with other agencies and resources to help them overcome almost any challenge, Edgerton said.
The facility is also a community center — any veteran can pop in to enjoy popcorn, coffee and maybe a music jam session.
U.S. Navy veteran Chris Abeyta, a professional musician who plays gigs around Santa Fe, said veterans will show up to play music that, more often than not, speaks to the era in which they served — songs by The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, for instance.
The music, Abeyta said, helps “create a oneness, not just with the other vets, but with the staff.”
The center faces its own set of challenges. Right now it has five full-time workers and a half-time employee — all but one are veterans — when it should have seven full-timers. As a result, counselors are handling caseloads of about 200 veterans each.
A psychologist will join the ranks in early fall, and the part-time director’s position will expand to full time by then too, Eisenberg and the other counselors said, which will help reduce the load.
There also are concerns among staff and older veterans that younger vets are not taking advantage of the center’s services.
“I try to reach out to my generation and those younger,” said 40-year-old Morales-Pacheco. “Everyone tells me, ‘I’m OK.’ But I know they’re not OK,” she said, “because I wasn’t OK.”
Abeyta understands why that happens. “When we were young veterans, we didn’t go for help, either,” he said. “We were very proud.”
Along with plans to increase its staffing, if vets call ahead, counselors will stay late and meet them in the evening or on a Saturday beyond normal operating hours.
The center also has a mobile unit a counselor will drive to rural communities surrounding Santa Fe to meet with vets and offer information.
Now, it wants to draw more veterans.
“A lot of veterans tell us they did not know about this place,” said counselor Robert Romero. “It’s not uncommon for a vet to tell us he or she circled the building three times before they came in. And once they come in, they may not open up for weeks. But eventually, they will.”
For Morales-Pacheco, that has proved true. She said the center provides a safe haven from events she experienced years ago.
“I come here every Thursday to regroup and see my brothers-in-arms,” she said. “I don’t have to do or say anything. I always leave feeling so much better, ready to take on the next week.
“And sometimes that’s what it’s about,” she added, “going on from Thursday to Thursday.”
The Santa Fe Vet Center is located at 2209 Brothers Road, Suite 10. Call 505-988-6562 for more information or hours of operation or 877-927-8387 (877-WAR-VETS) after hours for trauma counseling. Veterans who need to speak with someone immediately when the center is closed should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.