Fresno Vet Center provides mental health services

The Fresno BeeJuly 5, 2014 

Fresno area veteran Jim Ramirez said June 27 the Fresno Vet Center and VA hospital helped him and can help other veterans in need of counseling or mental health services.

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This year, about 6,000 veterans will seek mental health services from the VA Central California Health Care system.

Most are seen quickly.

An established patient can get an appointment on average in less than a day, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report. That's the quickest appointment time of any of the eight VA health systems in California.

A new patient can wait a month, according to the report. That's about average among the state's VA systems.

But veterans say there's help elsewhere that people need to know about.

The Fresno Vet Center -- a counseling service that is independent of the VA hospital -- offers individual, group, marital and family counseling and other help for war zone veterans from all eras, including World War II, Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We don't keep a waiting list," said Herman Barretto, a counselor. "If someone needs to be seen today, our requirement is that we provide that response."

The Vet Center, which has been around since 1981, was created to help Vietnam veterans readjust after their war experience and has been helping combat veterans since.

The center works with the VA mental health staff as needed. It doesn't have a psychiatrist, for example, who can prescribe medication. "If someone needs medication, we need the hospital," Barretto said.

But the counseling often is what veterans say they need.

Jim Ramirez, 69, an Army veteran from Hanford, said he had nightmares and suicidal tendencies when he got back from Vietnam. He was drafted in 1965 and spent a year there.

Six years ago when his wife told him he needed to get help, he turned to the Vet Center. The counseling saved his marriage, Ramirez said.

Often family members and friends or co-workers encourage veterans to come to the center, Barretto said.

Al Macias, 68, of Fresno, has been coming to the center for a little more than three years. An Army veteran, Macias was drafted and served a year in Vietnam. Friends and family became concerned by his outbursts of anger. A friend suggested he go to the center.

Macias said he walked out of his first meeting with Barretto. The counselor called his house to check on him.

Barretto put an early halt to their second meeting when he saw Macias was becoming upset. Macias said he left, sat in his car and cried for 40 minutes. "I'd never cried before," he said.

The counselors at the center, Macias said, "They're going to help you."

And the veterans often become close-knit.

Ramirez, Macias and Robert Herrera, 69, of Fresno, another Vietnam veteran, are three who consider themselves brothers. Said Ramirez: "This is like a family to me."


Fresno Vet Center

Where: 1320 E. Shaw Ave., Suite 125, Fresno

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

New clients: Orientation first and third Tuesday of each month (next orientations Tuesday and July 22, 10:30 a.m. to noon)

Telephone: (559) 487-5660

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, banderson@fresnobee.com or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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