A “home away from home” is an expression often used by Veterans, service members, and their families to describe their local Vet Center, so the Chico Vet Center, in Chico, California, was the first place many Veterans gathered for safety as the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise destroyed their homes and engulfed their community.
“We tried calling as many Veterans as we could,” said Chico Vet Center Director Cindy Hiett, whose team was proactively alerting clients the morning of the fire. Amid an area prone to seasonal fires, the Chico Vet Center supports a clientele of aging residents who are versed in evacuation routes and safety measures, but the speed of the fire surprised them. “Our Veteran population trends toward Vietnam and Korean War Veterans,” said Hiett. “They are a group who connect with each other and connect with us.” From the morning calls to the afternoon’s firestorm impact, the Vet Center team met with incoming Veterans who described their journey as being back in a war zone.
Luis “Robert” Snoberger, an outreach specialist for the Chico Vet Center, noticed the smoke as he was driving into work, and upon arrival, searched the Vet Center database for vulnerable clients while checking for updates on the CalFire website. “I am very proud of how we care for our Veterans,” said Snoberger. “A Veteran told me I contacted him before he got the emergency alert to evacuate,” he said.
An 80-year-old Korean War Veteran described how he was forced to drive his truck through a gate that blocked an exit route. “The Korean War Vet lived in a gated community,” adds Snoberger, who is a native of the area himself, “…but with the fire, the electricity was out and the main gate was closed. As residents questioned how they were going to get out, this Korean War Vet yelled to the crowd, ‘I’ll show you how we’re going to get out!’ then turned his truck around to avoid engine damage, and struck down the gate with his back bumper.”
“It was a retraumatizing experience for them,” said Hiett. “Several Veterans thought they weren’t going to make it out alive.” Hiett spoke of Veterans visibly in need of comfort and after their initial shock, the question Veterans repeatedly asked was, “What now?” To answer that call and assist with Veteran care, the VA’s Readjustment Counseling Service responded to the Camp Fire disaster with a contingent of two Mobile Vet Centers (MVCs) and dedicated staff to provide outreach and direct services to the affected community. Staff came from Oregon, Washington and other nearby California communities to help. A cadre of eight counselors, two outreach specialists and two Mobile Vet Center drivers helped augment the Chico Vet Center team.
Working in tandem, staff set up the MVCs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Recovery Center and at a commercial-retail district where the MVC was visible from the main highway. The MVC became the identifiable presence for Veterans as a VA coordination point. Snoberger began to liaison with staff from the nearby VA Outpatient Clinic. Together VA personnel coordinated resupply for everything from Veterans’ medications to medical equipment. “It’s very difficult,” said Hiett, “when a Veteran who has lost their home, literally lost everything, didn’t even get a chance to take their walker with them, or their medication.”
Another factor of support was using the Vet Center and VA databases to restore military records and validate identification. The multi-disciplinary team worked directly with the National Archives to begin the process of replacing military awards and honors that were lost in the home fires. “We tend to think of our physical possessions being lost,” said Snoberger,” but a lesson learned is to have a digital backup of certified records, especially DD214s, ready and available in case of an emergency. You need to prepare both a physical and digital ‘go-bag’.”
The Camp Fire has become the deadliest fire in California’s history, and the Vet Center teams provided direct care and services to nearly 600 Veterans, and over a thousand citizens within the community over a two-week period. “We opened our doors to our community,” said Hiett, “We started by just listening to their stories, although obviously as time moved on, they required more and more resources.” Vet Center staff also helped with referrals to other local and federal programs.
Hiett comments that their clients appreciate what they do for them. As affected Veterans disperse to live with relatives and relocate temporarily, they continue to call the Chico Vet Center. “What we do every day prepared us for an event like this,” said Hiett, “If things go sideways, Veterans use the Vet Center as their base. We are part of the community.”
If you’re a Veteran, service member, or military family member, visit a Vet Center to find a welcoming “home away from home” within your community. Looking for someone to talk to or help in readjusting after a deployment or sexual trauma? Call the Vet Center Call Center at 1-877-WAR-VETS (927-8387). Veterans and family members of Veterans are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You may also find the nearest Vet Center here.
The Vet Center staff that assisted were: James Brown, Joseph Hoffman and Cindy Heitt of the Chico Vet Center; Chris Silvey of the Eureka Vet Center; Richard Vattuone of the San Diego Vet Center; Daunte Rumore of Spokane Vet Center; Shawna Munson and Sophia Regino-Corrales of the Citrus Heights Vet Center; Josh Mathews of the Grants Pass Mobile Vet Center; Mobile Vet Center driver Tim Whale of the Citrus Heights Vet Center and Mobile Vet Center driver Joseph Moglia of the Concord Vet Center.