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New activity center opens for island veterans in Freeland

Perry McClellan of the Veterans Resource Center stands outside the new Community Activity Center in Freeland this past week. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Perry McClellan of the Veterans Resource Center stands outside the new Community Activity Center in Freeland this past week.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

There’s a new Freeland facility dedicated to healing the effects of war on veterans, their families and members of the community.

“We felt we needed a safe place,” said Judith Gorman, director of the nonprofit Veterans Resource Center, which this month opened its Community Activity Center in Freeland.

“It’s a place where they can be calm,” she said Thursday.

Maintaining an tranquil atmosphere is key to dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a common byproduct of war, said Gorman, who tragically knows first-hand from her veteran son what PTSD can do.

“It’s a nervous-system injury, and it only gets worse,” she said of PTSD. “Your brain is turned on too much for too long.

“It never goes away,” she added of PTSD. “You can fix it to some degree with positive regular experience, one baby step at a time. That’s what we’re about.”

With $17,000 in grants and donations, the Veterans Resource Center began its search for a permanent building to house its programs.

It settled on a leased storefront east of downtown Freeland, at 1796 Main St.

In June, volunteers and veterans set about turning the space into the Community Activity Center. Despite running out of money before renovations were complete, the center officially opened on Sept. 11 while work on the facility continues.

Besides providing meeting space for various group programs offered by the VRC, the new center will have a games and exercise area, a galley kitchen, an education room for groups as large as 30, and a library and quiet room.

The VRC also will move its office from Gorman’s Langley home to the new center, she said.

The drug- and alcohol-free facility is open for drop-in visitors on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 7 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We feel this kind of center is key to healing and reintegration,” Gorman said. “We all have to learn how to express our love and rebuild trust.”

Gorman and her husband, Perry McClellan, know well the devastating effects of PTSD.

Their son, Orrin, returned from combat duty in Afghanistan in 2006. He had joined the Army just barely out of high school.

Within two months of his return, he was suffering severe flashbacks, one of which led to a scuffle with Langley police.

His parents became dedicated advocates for their son, hooking him up with Veterans Administration medical help and other programs designed to help returning vets reintegrate into their communities.

Orrin seemed to be doing better, Gorman said, but this past May, during another three-day period of intense flashbacks combined with a lethal combination of medication, alcohol and a gun, he committed suicide. He was 26.

“He is a casualty of the Afghanistan war,” his mother said.

Long before their son’s death, Gorman and McClellan became convinced that island veterans needed a support organization on Whidbey.

“We’re so far away from facilities,” Gorman said, adding that the stress of a two-hour trip to Seattle for VA services, including the noise and intensity of freeway travel, often make PSTD worse.

“Their senses are raw and very heightened,” she said. “They experience things with intensity. They need calm.”

With the help of volunteers and local veterans, Gorman and McClellan established the Veterans Resource Center, and began instituting a series of innovative programs to help returning vets and their families readjust to normal life.

Gorman said it’s estimated that 2,000 veterans of Iran and Afghanistan have returned to the island in the past eight years. According to the 2000 Census, there were 12,000 veterans on Whidbey.

There are another 8,000 active duty personnel at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor, many of whom have served more than one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, she said.

And for every military member, there are at least four family members affected by the reentry process. And that’s not counting members of the immediate community, Gorman added.

As more volunteers came aboard, the VRC grew to the point where it incorporated as a nonprofit in January 2009 and began to raise money.

It now offers, at little or no cost, group sessions in expressive writing, PTSD and trauma, “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” volunteer opportunities, creative and social activities, mentoring, grief support and yoga. There’s also a remembrance program.

The programs are currently held in various locations around the South End, but will move permanently to the new Freeland center when it’s completed, Gorman said.

She said the programs offered by the VRC are essential to help veterans and their families rejoin their communities.

“If we don’t provide something like this, these guys are going to end up in our courts and jails, and our schools are going to have problems with their kids,” Gorman said. “Or they could end up dead.”

The VA reported recently that 18 veterans each day kill themselves somewhere in the United States.

“It’s not political or religious, but PTSD is deeply spiritual, damaging the soul,” she added. “Combat veterans have wisdom — they know what war is like. We need to listen deeply.”

Three events are scheduled at the new center, starting with an open house from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10.

On Saturday, Oct. 30, there will be a family oriented Halloween party from noon to 6 p.m., and on Saturday, Nov. 20 there will be Gratitude Dance, with proceeds from both going to the center.

For information or to volunteer or donate, call 321-7226 or e-mail info@vrcwi.com. The number for the new Freeland center is 331-8081.

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