For nearly three decades, Batres has worked with the community-based Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Readjustment Counseling Vet Centers, starting in the field offices and heading the national program since 1994.
Under his leadership, the Vet Centers have expanded to meet the growing needs of hundreds of thousands of combat veterans and their families, and improved both the quality and quantity of services.
“The Vet Centers are driven on Al’s dedication. He brings a veteran-centric approach to engaging veterans in their care and is constantly thinking of ways of making it better,” said Robert Jesse, the VA principal deputy undersecretary for health. “He cares very deeply about this group.”
The Vet Centers were created in 1979 to help Vietnam War veterans readjust to society, and now assist veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and all other wars. Located throughout the country, the centers are small, storefront operations with a staff of four to five people, each designed to provide a safe environment for soldiers who have been traumatized by combat. Services include combat stress counseling, family counseling for military related issues, job assistance, medical and benefit referrals.
Today, there are 300 Vet Centers—expanded by Batres from about 200 six years ago—and 50 Mobile Vet Centers that he developed and launched during the past two years. Four of these highly agile and adaptable mobile centers were used in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009 to provide counseling to more than 8,000 active duty military personnel and their families.
Batres developed family bereavement services for service members who die while on active duty, provided family therapists at each center, and set up the Combat Call Center, a national call-in service where combat veterans or family members can call at any time to talk to another combat veteran regarding any readjustment issues related to their military service.
“Dr. Batres has led the program to record levels of service provision over many years,” said Robert Petzel, the VA undersecretary of health. More than 190,000 veterans and their family members visited the centers 1.2 million times in 2010 alone.
“Over 95 percent of all veterans surveyed not only reported outstanding satisfaction, but said they would recommend the Vet Center to fellow veterans and their family members,” said Petzel.
Batres, who is a disabled Vietnam War veteran, began his career in 1974 as a psychologist at Ireland Army Hospital at Ft. Knox, Ky. In 1984, he became a team leader at the East Los Angeles Vet Center, where he said, “I just really fell in love with it and fell in love with what I learned.”
He subsequently became the manager of Vet Centers for the central region of the country, moved to Colorado to run the Vet Centers in the western mountain region, and was named the national program’s chief officer in 1994.
Batres said that the Vet Centers are successful because “we treat the whole person without requiring a diagnosis.”
“Itrsquo;s an issue of readjustment rather than mental health,” he said.
Batres places Vet Centers outside of the normal VA medical center setting, locating them in strip malls that are easily accessible on a bus route and in communities where there is a large population of underserved veterans.
To meet the needs of the veterans, Batres is constantly adapting and changing the program, with about 35 percent of his current employees having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA estimates that more than 40 percent of the veterans that Batres and his staff help are not seen by other medical professionals.
Lawrence Deyton, a former VA colleague and now director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, said Batres “provides street level, storefront counseling for veterans and their families.”
“He has a unique combination of vision and personal experience, which he has translated into a national program for vets and their families. No question in my mind, the Vet Center is the gold standard, a model for public health programs,” said Deyton.
For Batres, his long career serving his country and veterans was his calling and the best job that he could ever have.
“The opportunity to serve veterans and their families as a civil servant through the Vet Center program has been a dream realized and an honor,” said Batres. “My service to country in Vietnam provided me with a first-hand understanding of what it is like to be a warrior, respect for my fellow warriors, and honoring the creed that we never leave a fellow veteran behind.”