ROUNDUP — Doug Bell, a readjustment counselor with the Billings Vet Center, said it’s typical of military veterans to insist that they don’t need help.
“There’s that mentality of, there’s always someone worse than them, so they don’t want to take away from them,” he said.
And sure enough, when the Billings-based Mobile Vet Center pulled up in front of the Musselshell County Courthouse last Thursday, the first person to stop by was just such a veteran.
Bob Newman is a Roundup resident who served in the Montana National Guard in the 1970s. He said he was accidentally shot during training, just before he was to ship out for Vietnam.
He stopped by the Mobile Vet Center to visit and to sign the roster, his way of showing support for a service he hopes will continue indefinitely. And that’s all he was there for, he said.
“I don’t ask for anything because I believe there’s guys more important out there who need it more than I do,” he said. “Look at some of these guys coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan with their arms and legs gone. … That’s where I like to see the help go.”
Thursday was a relatively slow day in Roundup, with just seven vets coming in between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Bell said the monthly visit of the Veterans Administration’s 38-foot-long RV usually attracts 12 to 15 veterans, sometimes as many as 20.
The RV, one of 50 in the continental United States, is based at the Billings Vet Center and serves 33 Eastern Montana counties. Missoula has a smaller four-wheel-drive vehicle that serves Western Montana.
The Mobile Vet Centers are an extension of the storefront readjustment centers established after the Vietnam War, when it became apparent that veterans were reluctant to visit VA clinics and hospitals. In states like Montana, the need is based on that reluctance and on geography.
“It beats the hell out of everybody up here having to go down to Billings,” said Jim Hatter, a Marine Corps veteran. “Some of these old boys don’t even like to leave their house, much less go into the city.”
Until the Mobile Vet Center began making monthly visits to Roundup in 2009, Hatter had not had any interaction with the VA since moving to Roundup 22 years ago. As a result of his visits, Hatter has been working with Bell for the past year on a claim for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
The unemployed master carpenter didn’t want to talk about what caused his PTSD, saying only that he saw a lot of death up close. When he visits the Mobile Vet Center, he said, “I talk to Doug. It helps.”
At a minimum, the RV is staffed by Bell and John Viviano, the operator of the mobile unit. He’s the one who runs the RV’s technical and mechanical systems. There are satellite telephones, a fax machine, computers and a camera and display screen for telemedicine consultations, among a lot of other equipment.
Last Thursday’s crew included Dan Altmaier, a veterans representative for the Montana Job Service. A veterans service officer usually goes along, too, to help vets with benefits claims and paperwork, but the officer was on assignment elsewhere last week.
“Each mission is kind of tailored to who’s available and who our target audience is,” Viviano said.
The challenge of providing services is greater in Eastern Montana, Viviano said, because of the great distances involved and the type of people who live there. He said many of the vets they serve are “old hardscrabble cowboys” who aren’t used to asking anybody for anything.
Another visitor last week was Bernard Rustad, a combat medic who was finally awarded a Bronze Star last year for saving the lives of three soldiers in Vietnam.
He said he lives outside of Roundup and stops by the Mobile Vet Center if he’s in town that day and sees the RV. He said he was diagnosed with PTSD during one of his annual VA checkups.
“I tried talking them out of it, but they told me I had it,” he said with a chuckle. He was given a 40 percent disability rating, for which he receives a small monthly check.
“We call that our psycho money, my wife and I,” he said.
Sometimes the Mobile Vet Center doesn’t have to set up shop before veterans seek its services. Once, near Crow Agency, a veteran from out of state flagged the RV down and asked for crisis counseling. His medication was gone and he was in bad shape.
Bell said they managed to obtain medication for him, got him into a hotel for the night and then sent him on his way back to his home state, where his counselor had been informed of the situation.
Sometimes, Viviano said, veterans who work in law enforcement will visit the Mobile Vet Center for “below-the-radar counseling.” If they seek psychological help from a clinic or hospital, he said, a report will be generated and could end up being seen by their superiors. A quick visit to the mobile unit and no one’s the wiser.
“We try to live within the bureaucracy without being overpowered by the bureaucracy,” Viviano said.
Bell said he’s often amazed at how little veterans are aware of what they are eligible to receive. Vets suffering PTSD are afraid to seek help because they don’t want to miss work, he said, but then find out they can go on 100 percent disability while undergoing treatment.
The regular mobile visits are also important because they allow the vets to get to know Bell and the other service providers.
“You’ve got to build a certain level of trust with them before they open up to you,” Bell said.
He described the mobile unit as “a safe place where they get things off their chest.”
Or, as Viviano put it, “We’re the aid station at the edge of the battlefield.”