Providence Vet Center helps vets with adjusting to life after service – The Providence Journal

“What did I do this summer?” mused Terry Siravo, a 72-year-old Air Force veteran from Riverside. “Well, let’s see. I went on three deep sea fishing charters, joined an archery program, and learned to surf cast,” he recalled. “And I also went surfing!
“Hands down this has been the best summer I’ve had in 40 years,” Siravo told me.
Siravo can often be found with his friend Ed Bowen, a 69-year-old Navy vet from Warwick. Ed echoes Terry’s enthusiasm.  “It’s been an unbelievable summer. I was amazed to find all these activities and programs available to veterans at no cost.”
Terry and Ed are two of the many veterans who take advantage of the free programs and activities organized by Providence Vet Center.
Vet Centers are small, non-medical, counseling centers run by the VA. Much of their work is dedicated to seeing veterans through the challenges that come with managing life during and after the military, but the centers also provide activities and events that keep veterans active and healthy.
In addition to the outdoor activities,  Vet Center runs a very popular Guitar4Vets program. If a vet ever wanted to learn to play the guitar, now’s his or her chance.
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Vet Center also offers an Art Expression Group, with free instruction provided by professionals. Other programs such as weekly yoga are also available.
“I’ve had these two Vietnam Veterans tagging along with me to a bunch of different events all summer,” says Justyn Charon, who manages many of these activities for Vet Center.
“We actually met at the Boots on the Ground event at Fort Adams over Memorial Day weekend.
“I keep asking them if they want to go to these different events and they keep saying ‘Yes!’ They even bring their grandkids with them some weeks.”
It took Justyn a bit of convincing to get them to try surfing, “But they both ended up leaving with huge smiles on their faces!”
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Bowen, a lifelong Warwick resident, graduated high school in 1971, went to work for Almac’s Supermarkets, and in 1973 joined the Navy.
“To this day I don’t really know why I did,” he said. “My draft number was high and the Vietnam war was winding down, so I was probably not getting called up. I just joined anyway.”
After basic training at Great Lakes, he trained as a gunners mate technician on a ship-based anti-submarine missile system called the ASROC. Assigned to Hawaii, he served on the USS Whipple, a destroyer escort converted to fast frigate. 
After his discharge, he came home and saw an ad in The Providence Journal for the last job he expected— Naval Weapons Center in Newport was seeking a civilian ASROC technician.
He also worked at the Newport News Naval Shipyard in Virginia before ending his working life as a tree service technician. 
“A group of 18 or 20 of us worked out regularly at the VA gym in Eagle Square,” said Bowen. “Most of us were Vietnam era vets, with a few older Korean war guys sprinkled in. We called ourselves the gym rats.”
According to Bowen, this was a great way to avoid “sitting on the couch eating chips and watching television all the time.”
With the onset of COVID, however, the VA closed the gym to the exercise group. “Some of us lost a few steps because of that,“ he acknowledged.
As it happens, Bowen’s favorite activity is fishing, and serendipity brought him together with Terry and Justyn.
“I attend the Boots on the Ground event every year, and last year I met Terry there. We got talking about fishing, and he told me about a charter out of New Hampshire he had signed up for.”
Siravo, born and raised in Riverside, graduated from East Providence High School in June 1968. He joined the Air Force a few months later.
“I didn’t really think I was college material,” he explained. “I talked it over with my dad, who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. So I enlisted.”
After basic at Lackland AFB, he trained as an air cargo specialist. Assigned to Charleston AFB, he was assigned to Turkey. Shortly thereafter, he received orders to Vietnam. He was assigned to the 15th Aerial Port Squadron at Da Nang.
“I was chief of a loading crew. If you can name it, I’ll bet I put it on or took it off an airplane,“ he joked. “And that includes live animals.”
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Siravo’s crew serviced C-130, C-123 and smaller Caribous as well as huge C141 Starlifters coming from the states.
He was in country from April 1970 to April 1971, served a second tour in Vietnam, and spent part of his tour at Ubon Air Force Base in Thailand.
After his discharge he worked various  physically demanding jobs until he “wrecked his back”, and his doctors told him to find another career after two surgeries. 
“A friend suggested medicine,“ said Siravo. “I was skeptical at first, but I became a respiratory therapist of all things.”
He enjoyed a “very satisfying” 31-year career at the VA hospital in Providence in that capacity, retiring in 2013.
In 2014 he needed a hip replacement, but the surgeon wanted him to participate in a risk reduction program first.
It’s not that Siravo had been inactive; for 31 years he had coached high school football, first at Cranston East, then at Warwick Vets. “When Vets converted to a middle school, I finished out my coaching at Pilgrim.”
Through his physical therapy, he met the Gym Rats while using the VA facility to work out.
“I joined the Fit for Life group and that was one of the best things I’ve ever done. For about eight years a group of us worked out together.”
But then the pandemic came along. They asked themselves, “Now what?”
The Vet Center activities helped fill the void.
“I love hanging out with these two veterans,” said Charon. “They are just easy going, let’s have a good time kind of people. I am a better person from spending time with them.”
“I’ve got them on the short list to go duck hunting in the next few months,” responded Charon.
Vet Center services are available at no cost, regardless of discharge character, and without needing to be enrolled in VA health care or having a service-connected disability. For further information about eligibility call Justyn Charon at (401) 739-0167 or email Justyn.Charon@va.gov.
• Seeking information about veterans running for state and local offices.
When i first took on this gig in January, I expressed dismay at the lack of connection of the average American with anything military. This country has now reared a third generation that cannot tell a colonel from a sergeant, a howitzer from a tank, or a battleship from an aircraft carrier. Even with our extended involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, only our active soldiers and the direct families of those who deployed seem to have a real comprehension of what it means to serve. This is compounded by the ever-decreasing number of elected representatives and political decision makers who have ever served.
In 1973, nearly three in every four members of Congress had some type of military service. Now it’s about one in every six. And I’m sure the numbers are similar for local office holders. If you are a veteran running for office in November, or if you know one who is, please email me at veteranscolumn@providencejournal.com
• Learn to play the acoustic guitar: This Providence Vet Center program is offered through a partnership with Guitars for Veterans. All participants are asked to complete 10 sessions, at the end of which they will be awarded a free acoustic guitar. The guitar program is very popular and there is a waiting list, so anybody who is interested should sign up sooner rather than later. Vet Center eligibility required. Call (401) 739-0167 or email Paul.Santilli@va.gov
• The Steel Yard’s Fabrication Nights will run Wednesday and Friday nights, 6- 9 p.m. through October, 27 Sims Ave., Providence. Help make art for their annual Halloween Iron Pour. Come build larger-than-life props for a breathtaking spectacle of iron, and learn useful skills in the process. No experience necessary. Wear work clothes, closed toed shoes and gloves. Bring a water bottle and snack. Be prepared to get your hands dirty and make something truly impressive! For details call 401-273-7101 or visit www.thesteelyard.org
Thursday, Sept. 29, 5-7 p.m.: Veteran Town Hall at Middletown Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC), 1 Corporate Place, Middletown. Representatives from the VA Providence Healthcare System and Regional Benefits Office, as well as the RI Department of Veterans Services will be available to answer any questions veterans may have about benefits and claims. Contact John J. Loughlin II at john.loughlin@va.gov
Sunday, Oct. 2, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Car Show; Seventh War Veterans Tribute Cruise-in at the RI Veterans Home, Route 136, Bristol. Last year more than 300 attendees with various types of classic vehicles showed up to honor our vets. Registration 9 a.m. to 12 noon; awards at 3 p.m. Veterans judging committee will award trophies. All attendees will receive a commemorative dog tag. Suggested donation $15 per classic vehicle; admission to the general public is free. For details: Joe Thompson at 401-474-0875 or email thompsonjoe60@gmail.com
Monday, Oct. 10, 12-4 p.m.: “Pre-Veterans Day,” Complimentary Veterans Lunch at Texas Roadhouse, 1200 Quaker Lane, East Greenwich. Reservations required; there are only 50 spots available. Email Missy at 278marketing@texasroadhouse.com or call/text (860) 465-6364.
Every Thursday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Art Expression Group offered by the Providence Vet Center, 2038 Warwick Ave., Warwick 02889.  Vet Center eligibility required; artistic talent not required. Service members and veterans — test your skills with a paintbrush. Free Instruction provided by professionals. Email Heather Tarducci at Heather.Tarducci@va.gov or call (401) 739-0167
To report the outcome of a previous activity, or to add a future event to our calendar, please email the details (including a contact name and phone number/email address) to veteranscolumn@providencejournal.com


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