SMITHFIELD, R.I. — From his small home office, former Lt. Col. Ted Blickwedel is conducting a self-appointed mission: to call attention to what he claims is a serious problem inside a little-known Department of Veterans Affairs program that provides free mental health care to combat veterans.
From 2009 until retiring last year, Blickwedel, a former Marine Corps logistics officer, worked as a counselor and therapist at a VA facility in Rhode Island called a "Vet Center."
That facility is one of 300 that VA operates across the U.S. through its "Vet Centers" program. The program includes 80 mobile Vet Centers, 20 vet venter "outstations" and almost 1,000 community access points.
The program began after the Vietnam War as the Readjustment Counseling Service. Its purpose was and is to help combat veterans "readjust" to civilian life at home after returning from deployments.
The centers provide cognitive behavioral "talk therapy" and organize social activities and events designed to get vets out of the house and connected with other vets. All services are free.
Blickwedel, himself a combat veteran, said he got a master's in social work so he could help veterans as a therapist. He told NBC News he found working at a Vet Center to be a "wonderful" experience.
"We witnessed huge changes in veterans. Some of them, their lives completely did a 180," Blickwedel said. "I've personally had veterans tell me that I've saved their lives. That I made a difference for them."