Military veterans who have served in war zones often face unique challenges when they return home: Post-traumatic stress disorder, marital and family stress, and simply making the adjustment back to civilian life.
In rural areas, where vets don't have immediate access to readjustment counseling and other related services, these challenges can be even more overwhelming.
To help bring these services to the underserved areas of rural America, the Department of Veterans Affairs has established a new outreach program known as Mobile Vet Centers (MVCs).
As the name implies, the MVCs are actually mobile facilities that can travel to rural areas and provide services directly. In all, there are 50 MVCs spread throughout the U.S., including one based in Fargo that serves all of northern Minnesota as well as eastern North Dakota.
"Our specific mission is rural outreach," said Tim Kessler, an outreach technician with the Fargo Vet Center in Fargo, who operates the mobile unit that is based there.
This Tuesday, the MVC made a stop at Minnesota State Community & Technical College in Detroit Lakes. Additional stops were planned at the other M-State campuses in Moorhead and Wadena, today and Thursday (the MVC stopped at the Fergus Falls campus on Monday).
"We're trying to get out and make our presence known, let people know what we're doing," Kessler said when asked about the purpose behind the M-State campus visits.
"A lot of young veterans served (in the military) because they wanted the educational benefits ... these campus visits are a good way of reaching out to our younger vets," he added.
Each MVC is supposed to be staffed with a driver/operator (like Kessler) and an outreach counselor. The Fargo Vet Center is currently in the process of hiring a counselor; Kessler said he expects a second marital/family counselor to be added in the near future.
The counselors are supposed to have masters' degree-level expertise, and "the great majority will be combat veterans," Kessler added.
The counseling services provided by the MVCs are intended exclusively for veterans who have served in war zones, though they also answer questions and provide referral services for other vets, Kessler noted.
The MVCs are equipped with an Internet satellite and onboard generator, and three heavily encrypted VA laptops that ensure any information transmitted from them is on a secured network.
The MVC is also equipped with a video conferencing system that allows face-to-face visits between a veteran living in a rural area and the health provider at the VA Medical Center in Fargo.
Confidential counseling areas are located at the front and back of the vehicle, with a waiting room in the center. The MVC is also equipped with three flat-screen TVs, shower and restroom, refrigerator and microwave, as well as a portable examination table.
Each vehicle also has six Internet phones which eliminate the need to use cellular phones for communication.
The reason why these MVCs are so well-equipped is to act as mobile command posts during large-scale natural disasters or other emergency situations such as a hurricane, forest fire, etc.
"Fortunately, they have not had to be utilized for that purpose yet," he said, though the Fargo MVC was used to provide services during the floods this spring, when the Vet Center on Fiechtner Drive was closed temporarily due to its proximity to the river.
In addition, the MVCs can also serve as mobile units for VA wellness clinics, Kessler said.
The MVCs are largely self-sufficient, he added.
"As long as someone keeps bringing us fuel and coffee, we can keep going as long as needed," said Kessler.