NEW PORT RICHEY
The carnage Eric Brethen saw more than 40 years ago from his helicopter cockpit over the Vietnam jungle never left him.
Even on the morning of his 65th birthday, as he spoke in front of about 50 other veterans and their families, he could still recall the vivid details.
The way he'd internalized the human suffering made the rest of his life harder, he said. He feared crowds and failure. He hated himself for the deaths of his men. He never let anyone get close.
Brethen lived that way until a year ago, when his fellow pilots persuaded him to go for counseling at the Vet Center.
At the time, it was a small RV parked in Brooksville. But Friday was the grand opening for the Vet Center's new building at 5139 Deer Park Drive in New Port Richey. The center, now the 300th in the nation and run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, will provide individual and family counseling, and workshops for victims of post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma. The center is meant to welcome home recent veterans, but 60 percent of those in its clinics are Vietnam War veterans, said Pasco County Vet Center team leader Renee Delgado. The Vet Center has other locations in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, Lakeland and Sarasota.
At the opening ceremony, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis spoke about the hardships veterans and their families face at home. In 2012, veteran suicides began to surpass combat deaths, according to a VA report.
The opening comes amid a scandal at the VA that spurred the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki because of allegations that officials falsified reports to misrepresent how long veterans had to wait for care. Locally, whistle-blowers have claimed that appointments at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole were canceled to minimize the appearance of backlogs.
At the new Vet Center, Eric Brethen now goes to one-on-one counseling sessions once every three weeks. He said it's helped his marriage. He looks at his past more realistically now, without the blame. He still can't watch Vietnam War films on TV, but he's more at ease with people.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.