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VFW plans program to aid new veterans
Joe LaBranch unlocks the door to the VFW building, which will serve as a new Veterans Center. - photo by Autumn McBride

How to help

Those interested in donating a computer, monitor, printer or other items to the Veterans Center program can contact Joe LaBranche at (404) 862-2141.

A trained killer walked through the city without a weapon, feeling vulnerable and unsure.

Hearing the sounds of rapid footsteps behind him, the man turned and dropped kicked another in the chest.

The Vietnam War veteran hadn’t yet adjusted to civilian life.

“I went from the jungles to the streets of Detroit in 24 hours,” said Joe LaBranche, adding that it didn’t get much better after that. “For years, I walked around thinking there’s something wrong with me.”

It took nearly 43 years for LaBranche to realize that he wasn’t crazy.

Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder in a world that didn’t want to talk about it gave him little opportunity to learn how to cope.

Now a member of the Cumming Veterans of Foriegn Wars Post 9143, LaBranche has plans to start a program that will give adjusting vets a place to turn in hopes that our nation’s newest heroes won’t have to go through what he experienced.

Put simply, the program will help guide veterans of the War on Terror back into civilian life.

The Veterans Center would provide assistance dealing with the Veterans Administration, as well as job training and the ability to video chat with those overseas.

It would also offer support for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder through a program called Vet-to-Vet.

The backbone of the program is the concept of mutuality, or veterans sharing their experiences.

In the realm of the VA, a veteran who’s been through the doors of the hospital or filled out assistance forms knows how to better navigate the often complicated system.

“A lot of veterans don’t understand what’s available to them through the VA,” LaBranche said.

In terms of coping with adjustment or post-traumatic stress disorder, having someone who understands what you’re going through can sometimes be the most valuable resource.

Family and friends may never fully understand what their loved one went through, LaBranche said, but talking with those who have been there before can be a great “sounding board.”

“It’s like a comfort zone,” he said. “There’s no greater feeling than meeting with someone who’s able to share your experiences.”

The Veterans Center would also offer help to family members in recognizing and helping with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Those can include anger, drug or alcohol abuse, avoidance, depression and difficulty maintaining relationships.

It took LaBranche decades to learn how to cope with his feelings.

He said it’s wonderful that, unlike the Vietnam veterans, today’s military service personnel receive applause at the airport. But that support can quickly fade.

“What happens when the clapping stops?” he said. “After that, where do they go? That’s what we want to do for them.”

Army Capt. Brenda Vianna returned in December from a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

Though she feels appreciation for her service, she said the limelight is uncomfortable.

Vianna said she identifies with the statement that so many who have been honored have said before: “I was just doing my job.”

Nearly a year later, Vianna said she’s not the same person she was before her tour and doesn’t expect to be.

The south Forsyth resident said she had been excited to see her family and friends, but found herself avoiding public places or large crowds.

She no longer has much in common with old friends and can never again be just a civilian.

The Cumming VFW sent her care packages and support while she was overseas. Since she’s returned, the organization has also given her a place to belong.

Having veterans serve as guides for those returning from overseas tours is something that’s crucial, Vianna said.

“I think it should almost be required,” she said. “Unless you’ve gone through it, unless you know what is wrong, how can you fix it?

“It also gives it a voice of not just sincerity, but also somebody who’s involved, has a vested interest or a passion.”

While veterans’ care has improved and society has a better understanding of the “effect war has on a human being,” Vianna said, there’s something lacking that she can’t “quite put [a] finger on.”

Vianna, who remains on active duty, currently serves as an executive officer to general staff at Fort McPherson in Atlanta.

She’s not sure if she will serve another tour, something LaBranche said creates another challenge in helping today’s veterans, many of whom serve multiple times overseas.

The first step to making the Veterans Center a reality, LaBranche said, is setting up some computers, printers and Web cameras to provide the technological basis for everything they want to do.

Unfortunately, the post was burglarized in May, leaving the VFW without any computers or money to get the program started.

The donations that do come in go first and foremost to the community fund, which helps those in need of assistance.

“[For the community], supporting the vets is more than lip service,” LaBranche said. “For the VFW, we have to change focus.
It’s no longer, ‘Hey you’re a veteran, come on in and have a beer with us.’”

It’s the community’s responsibility to care for its veterans, he said, but it’s the older veterans who can relate to the needs of new ones returning home.

LaBranche hopes Cumming is just the start of this program in the VFW. He wants to branch it out until Vet-to-Vet becomes nationwide.

“I don’t want the veterans today — of Afghanistan and Iraq — to experience the things we experienced,” he said.