Among the crowds, flowers, and flags at Arlington National Cemetery over the 2023 Memorial Day weekend were three Vet Centers, provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Each Vet Center—a truck outside the cemetery entrance, a truck in Section 60, and tents near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—offered free confidential counseling, community engagement, and referral services.
A steady stream of people visited the centers, each of which contained a mix of counselors and outreach specialists who engaged with anyone who needed help or just wanted to talk. The centers come to the cemetery for both Memorial Day weekend and for Wreaths Across America, when people come to the cemetery to lay wreaths for the holiday season. “Families tell us they’re grateful just knowing we are going to be here every year,” said Jessica Schiefer, a communications officer with the VA who worked in all three locations.
“Recognizing Memorial Day can stir up a lot of emotions for vets and their families,” explained Schiefer. “Just looking across Section 60 and seeing people in grief lets me know we have a role to play.”
And a vital role. Post-9/11 veterans approached the centers, as well as people from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Two parents brought their veteran son to a center where his mother whispered to Schiefer that he needed their support. “That’s the confirmation that we should be here,” said Schiefer. A woman in Section 60 told one team that she credits where she is today with the Vet Center. Then she pointed to her two girls and said they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Vet Center.
For an event like Memorial Day, the teams manning the centers are some of the best in the VA. “Regional offices nominate the best-of-the-best specialists for the event,” said Schiefer. “We attract people from Kentucky, Montana, and a variety of other locations.” Because of this policy, the team was able to connect a Kentucky veteran with a counselor from Kentucky.
According to Schiefer, the 80 mobile vet centers around the country were created specifically for Vietnam veterans to treat Vietnam veterans, especially those who lacked trust in the VA after the war. The centers served as a first step of care for veterans and allow the VA to act proactively for veterans who need help but are reluctant to reach out for it. While family members have always been able to receive bereavement counseling for a relative killed on active duty, today they can receive the same level of support if a veteran relative died of suicide. “They’re still our customers,” said Schiefer.
Schiefer hopes all veterans who need help will reach out to the VA, either through the mobile centers or visiting the VA in their region. “Our help is confidential and at no cost,” she explained. And if they meet the criteria, they’re eligible to use the VA as a support system for life.”