The Department of Veterans Affairs Mobile Vet Centers are designed to attract people to ask questions, and the giant, white bus does exactly that.
Sure there are those who come aboard to try and donate blood or get care for their pets, but for the most part, veterans climb the steps into the mobile office where they can gather information about the VA, ask about benefits and meet with a counselor.
“I carry tons of information,” said Donovan Smith, outreach coordinator and driver for the center on wheels.
For the past five years, the Air Force retiree has driven one of three mobile centers in Texas.
“Just (the mobile center) alone is a rolling ad for the VA,” he said.
With Abilene as his home-base, Smith drives the center as far as Hobbs, N.M., Marfa, Tyler and even San Antonio, to try to reach more veterans who need assistance or information.
“When I get to a function and I’m helping veterans, it makes (all the driving) worth it,” Smith said.
Nationwide, there are 50 mobile centers, 25 smaller mobile centers and 300 traditional vet centers, said Charles Edens, veterans outreach specialist at the Killeen-Heights Vet Center in Harker Heights.
When Edens has an outreach event with the potential for a high veteran population, such as Thursday’s student fair at Central Texas College, he can request the mobile center attend.
“It’s a billboard to let people know we’re here and they can come in and say, ‘Hey, what are you here for and what do you do?’” he said.
The center is surprisingly spacious inside and can be divided into sections, each with its own air-conditioning unit, to provide veterans private time with a licensed counselor, or a flu shot from a nurse. Most of the time, Smith said he provides information about veteran benefits.
Another secondary function of having mobile command centers ready for action is disaster relief. After the shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009, Edens said the VA sent four mobile centers to the post, where they provided counseling “six days a week, 12 hours a day.”
Audrey Troup, a readjustment counselor with the local vet center, occasionally teams up as the counselor on board a mobile center to reach out to veterans. She brings along pamphlets on post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“I can give information, so if veterans want, they can do their own assessment and ask themselves, ‘Do I need help?’” she said.
Vet centers were created by Congress as part of the VA in 1979, in the wake of Vietnam War veterans continuing to experience readjustment problems.
Today, the centers offer counseling for combat veterans and victims of military sexual trauma, counseling for family members of combat veterans and guidance on VA benefits.