FARMINGTON — Veterans in the Four Corners can now take advantage of an expanded veterans center in Farmington.
The Farmington Vet Center, which has offered readjustment counseling services since 1991, recently completed a multi-year effort to expand its facility.
For years, counselors and staff assisted veterans in cramped quarters in the center's Park Plaza location. On Friday, the center hosted a grand re-opening and ribbon-cutting event to celebrate its larger space at 4251 E. Main St., Suite A.
"It's been a long time in the coming for us to be able to offer a wide array of services to our military veterans," said Camille Trombley, office manager at the center. "We started the process of expansion nearly five years ago."
The center, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, now has triple its original space, with a comfortably sized lobby with plenty of furniture, new group and conference rooms and counseling offices. Added technology, including computer and teleconferencing video equipment, is also available.
All of the center's services are free for veterans.
"Some veterans may need to check with an out-of-the-area doctor or counselor, like in Albuquerque, for example," Trombley said. "Now, we have the ability to make that happen in the comfort of our conference room."
On staff are three readjustment counseling therapists. One of them, Tom Smith, is a Vietnam War veteran with a master's degree in social work.
"I like to say that no one understands what it's like to be owned 24 hours a day. Your life is not your own," Smith said. "Everyone's a vet here. I was in the infantry. I've seen combat. I've been there. I understand."
The center currently assists roughly 200 veterans each month and hopes to reach 2,000 in the future.
Many of the clients Smith has seen in his 23 years of counseling work have been Vietnam War veterans -- usually people in their early 60s -- but he has started working with more vets in their 20s who are home after tours in Afghanistan or Iraq.
"We're kind of on the tip of what the VA believes to be significant iceberg of a new generation of vets who believe they can do it on their own," Smith said. "Sooner or later they see -- or their family lets them know -- they're not adjusting as well on their own, which is where we can be there as a trusted fellow vet."
Most often, Smith encounters vets with issues surrounding readjustment back into civilian life after service. Post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or general mental health issues are common. And those bring companion medical problems such as anger, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, financial hardship, insomnia, guilt and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.
If needed, Smith coordinates with various specialists at the new Farmington VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, located behind the Animas Valley Mall at 3605 English Road. There, vets can use computer stations to access a database called "My Healthy Vet" to register for services, make appointments, communicate with doctors and manage their health care.
"We're truly vet-friendly here," Smith said. "Trust is something big with our veterans. They often feel guilty just needing to talk about their issues, but we are here for them. I like to say the Vet Center is like a clearinghouse for all things veterans need."
As one of only four vet centers in New Mexico, Smith believes the biggest challenge is just getting the word out that veterans have the support they need locally.
Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts spoke at Friday's grand opening ceremony.
"The new facility will enable the center to see more veterans who have served their country in bigger numbers," Roberts said. "It reaffirms this community's investment and support for our military men and women."
With the added space and technology, the center can only be of help if the veterans who need the help -- no matter the issue or need -- walk in the door.
Smith said he's an optimist.
"I believe we can make a marked difference in the lives of those who served our country and now need some information or a helping hand," he said. If you're a veteran and think you may need help, I hope they'll call or just come in. We are advocates who can relate."