HOOKSETT — Veterans, active military personnel, their family and friends, and local and state officials packed a large meeting room in the Manchester Vet Center on Friday morning to celebrate the official opening of the center's new home at the Granite Hill Business Center in Hooksett.
The center, which offers individual, group and family counseling and other support for veterans of all ages and from all wars, had outgrown its original location on Liberty Street in Manchester. Although it took several years of persistent appeals to the Veterans Administration to approve the new site, the center's staff and supporters are now looking ahead to expanding their services and reaching any vet who needs assistance.
Caryl Ahearn, who leads the center's team of counselors, welcomed official guests and visitors and offered a warm greeting to the VIPs, the veterans, military members and families who came to the opening.
"Our society owes you a huge debt that can never truly be repaid," she told them.
Ahearn introduced several vets who shared the struggles they faced readjusting to civilian life and explained how the center can help.
Jessie Tustin, a former preventative medical specialist with the Army National Guard, became extremely sick after returning home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"I was scared and I knew I needed help," said Tustin, who was exposed to environmental agents that cause nodules to appear all over her legs and left her unable to walk. She also suffered from nightmares and outbursts due to post traumatic stress.
Tustin credited the Vets Center for helping her along the road to recovery.
"I no longer serve, but I still feel like a soldier," she said, adding that she hoped other soldiers who need help will take advantage of the type of support offered through the center.
"This is a place for all of us to come, it's like our new home," she said.
Vietnam vet John Morrissey said when he came home he wasn't able to tell anyone how he felt.
"It's wasn't accepted," he said. "When I came home, I didn't realize how much trouble I was in and how dangerous my life had become."
But when the build up to the Gulf War started, Morrissey began having flashbacks and night terrors.
"Those of us who have served know what PTSD is about," he said. "And our family members suffer along with us."
Morrissey found help at the Vets Center where he started a journey of healing that he described as "miraculous."
"PTSD is not something that never goes away but it does abate," he said.
U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, a member of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, beat the odds of bad weather and canceled plane flights and made it to Hooksett to help celebrate the center's opening.
Kuster said the government is finally getting on top of PTSD benefit claims from veterans and a pending bill is aimed at expediting the process.
"The problem has been that claims are getting so much more complicated, she said. "That's partly because we know more, and partly because we are willing to acknowledge metal health issues."
Kuster said that, for her, making sure veterans have health care and resources like the Vets Center are a priority.
"There's no more important thing for Congress to do than honor those who have fought to protect our democracy and our safety," she said.
New Hampshire Senators Kelley Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen and Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter were unable to attend the opening, but all three sent staff members who read letters congratulating the center and praising its work.
For Brigadier General Carolyn Protzmann, commander of the New Hampshire Air National Guard, one of the greatest benefits of the Vets Center is that it provides a place for vets to connect with one another.
"What a great place this is for vets to come and share their stories," said Protzmann, who thanked the staff for the help they have provided in the past, and the plans they have to reach out to new veterans as they arrive home.
"I want to thank those whose life passion is to serve those of us whose life passion is to serve," she said. "We couldn't be in better hands."