Director switches roles in helping veterans

January 2, 2019

Following eight years of growth and development, the Kalispell Veteran Center recently bid farewell to its inaugural director, Dr. Jeff Heider, as he traded in his administrative title for the chance to return to face-to-face care for the veterans of the Flathead Valley.

Under his leadership, the center grew from its initial staff of three to its current staff of seven and now offers a variety of veteran-focused groups, programs, services and education.

“We started from scratch, and it was very challenging to begin with,” Heider said.

Heider treated his first veteran in February 1983, back when Montana had one veteran center in Billings to serve the entire state.

Veteran centers first appeared in the late 1970s through a congressional appropriation set up to reach combat veterans, particularly struggling Vietnam veterans who weren’t using traditional Department of Veterans Affairs resources, Heider said.

The Billings vet center contracted the mental health center in Kalispell, where Heider had started working, to serve veterans in outlying communities.

“They said, ‘Who would like to see veterans here?‘” Heider said. “I said ‘I will.’”

He continued working with veterans through the mental health center for four years before opening his own private practice.

By the mid-1980s, Congress provided funding for a total of 200 centers nationwide, providing access to all veterans who had served in combat.

Two new centers in Missoula and Fort Harrison extended independent contracts to Heider’s private practice and continued sending veterans through his door.

“Seeing veterans just seemed to click,” Heider said. “I think they appreciated the respect and regard that I showed them, and took time. Trust would develop in relationships, so I kind of became the veteran guy in the community here.”

According to Heider, concern over post-9/11 veterans’ adjustment prompted Congress to fund 100 additional vet centers across the country in 2009, including the one in Kalispell that would assume the area’s veteran care.

Faced with a decision of whether to keep his private practice or continue his work with veterans, Heider chose to forfeit his practice and applied for a position with the VA.

In 2010, the VA hired Heider as director for the new vet center.

Equipped with one office manager, one counselor, a few chairs and a desk, Heider set to work spreading the word and opening doors to Kalispell’s veteran community.

“The first goal became trying to educate other providers, even those in the VA, what a vet center was because they’re very unique,” Heider said. “Although vet centers are part of the VA, they enjoy a separate status.”

According to Heider, vet centers collect minimal information and can guarantee confidentiality for veterans by keeping a separate record system from the VA.

Their mission, he said, is threefold-counseling, outreach and referral.

In addition to offering counseling for post traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms, vet centers also aim to educate and help veterans access other resources such as health care and job services.

“It really worked,” Heider said. “It went from ‘what’s a vet center?’ to us being viewed as a major resource for veterans’ issues in the community.”

As awareness increased over time, Heider and his team began building on their foundation, adding new specialty groups for veterans dealing with sexual trauma, substance abuse and other wounds, offering support groups for veteran spouses and group activities that invites veterans to gather and connect in nonthreatening environments.

“Where else are you going to go to be understood?” Heider said. “If you’re focusing on this, the likelihood that thoughts of combat or bad things intruding is lessened. It helps ground people in the here-and-now and maybe detach in a healthy way from some of the traumatic events they’ve experienced and its aftermath.”

Some patrons of the Kalispell Vet Center tie flies and go fishing together. They go on yearly retreats, have monthly reunions, and many begin to equip themselves and process the toll their service took on their lives.

Heider summarized his experience working with veterans as one of tears, laughs and goose bumps.

“I’ve said that veterans, as far as PTSD goes, I’ve learned 10 percent from books and 90 percent from the veterans I’ve seen,” he said. “They’ve taught me a lot.”

Toward the end of his tenure at the center, however, Heider said he faced more and more administrative work and less of the face-to-face time with the veterans he valued.

When a new opportunity arose at the Kalispell VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic, Heider felt a pull to return to counseling veterans one-on-one.

“The vet center was the most challenging but most rewarding part of my professional career,” he said. “I was able to do more good for veterans at the vet center than I ever was able to do as a private practice. It was a tough decision to leave.”

Heider’s new position as a primary-care mental-health integration psychologist at the VA clinic allows him to work alongside the primary-care physicians to help veterans prioritize their mental health as part of their overall medical wellbeing.

“The idea is that often the primary-care doctors and their teams are the ones who become aware that a veteran is struggling, might be the first to pick up on possible PTSD issues or depression or a positive suicide screen or some other mental-health concern,” Heider said.

Through the new program now being implemented statewide, VA doctors can offer veterans the option to meet with Heider or his colleague the same day for an initial assessment and a potential follow-up treatment plan.

“What it’s done is it’s brought me back to face-to-face contact with veterans,” Heider said. “Like the vet center reaches people who might not normally seek help, this, too, brings people in who might slip through the crack.”

Heider resigned from his position at the vet center in November, but a number of former patients, veterans and community members impacted by his work turned out for an official farewell at the center’s annual Christmas party Dec. 14.

There, a crowd applauded Heider as the center’s new director, Christina Ryan, presented him with a plaque commemorating his service.

“I’m really proud of how the vet center has grown and become a leader in the community for not only providing veteran services but veteran advocacy and education about what veterans face and what services are available,” Heider said.

Though his temporary office at the VA clinic down the road from the vet center doesn’t yet have room for it, Heider said he plans to display the plaque on his mantle at home and, one day, at his memorial service.

“The vet center is part of my identity,” he said. “It’s been a special career.”

For more information about the Kalispell Vet Center, visit https://www.vetcenter.va.gov/.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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