Peppermint, cinnamon and subtler scents wafted around the first floor of building 220 at the Veteran’s Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Wednesday, when UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and VA Secretary Robert McDonald met for a joint tour, starting in a building dedicated to integrated medicine, including aroma therapy.

The first floor houses veterans’ programs run by the VA, while upstairs, UCLA is preparing programs for veterans and their families. It’s part of UCLA’s 10-year, $16.5 million commitment to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for new programs and supportive services. On Wednesday, Jan. 4, Block led a UCLA delegation showcasing to McDonald four key programs in the works: a legal clinic; a center to help with or prevent homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness; a revived and expanded Veteran’s Garden; and a family resource center.

“UCLA is bringing our diverse resources together with other public- and private-sector partners to transform the West L.A. VA into a thriving veteran-centric community,” Block said. “Together with the VA, I believe we will make a bigger difference in veterans’ lives than either of us would alone.”

Upstairs from the aroma therapy, Block and McDonald met with UCLA professor psychiatry Patricia Lester, whose expertise in family resilience and work on how to support military and veteran families will form the basis of a new Family Resource and Well-Being Center at the VA campus.

In the light-filled upstairs rooms, veterans and their families can come in for educational and wellness programs that strengthen parenting, family and couples relationships. In individual, family and group sessions, veterans and their families can learn specific tools to address challenges such as recovery from parental injury or PTSD, or transitioning from military to veteran life. Families can also participate in fun, engaging activities — such as cooking classes in a VA kitchen downstairs — that help build family communication and togetherness.

“The new center will provide a welcoming, family-friendly environment and empirically supported programming for veterans and their families on the VA campus,” explained Lester, the Jane and Marc Nathanson Family Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and a nationally recognized expert in child and family resilience and trauma. “Families will have the opportunity to learn some of the same skills you might learn in a therapeutic environment, but to do this in a preventive, educational context. … The idea is to strengthen veteran families before crises arise.”

The UCLA-VA Family Resource and Well-Being Center is expected to open in March. It is intended to become a national model for veteran families and women veterans, offering a one-stop portal for access to specialized family resilience, social work, legal, education, parenting skills and other services. UCLA is providing $500,000 annually, and won a grant of $100,000 from St. John’s Health Center Foundation to create virtual home resources to reach vets and families farther from the VA.

UCLA/VA Family Resource and Well-Being Center
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
The services provided at the UCLA/VA Family Resource and Well-Being Center will be based on the pioneering work of psychiatry professor Patricia Lester.

Megan Glynn, whose husband has been deployed six times, first participated in Lester’s original Families OverComing Under Stress program several years ago, and was part of a group that worked with Lester to develop the current center’s vision.

When Glynn tried FOCUS, “It was my fourth deployment and I was like, ‘I’ve got this handled, I’ve done this many times,’ but I was looking at my oldest son who was then 4 … And I was like, maybe I don’t know for him.” So Glynn and her husband joined FOCUS to learn new coping skills. “I seriously used those tools every single day he was gone …  It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gone through deployment, your family’s in a different stage each time.”

Block and McDonald also visited with UCLA professors who will run a new Homeless, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Center for Excellence. UCLA is finalizing plans to work with the VA, and to provide $250,000 annually. Barry Guze, a UCLA professor of clinical psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, and chief of mental health with the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, explained how UCLA will help train the staff, gather data on the results, and analyze the findings to refine the training so that it is continually improving.

“It’s a virtuous circle,” Guze said. But what would be truly transformational, he added hopefully, would be access to the data in the Million Veteran Program, the VA’s medical research program that veterans join voluntarily to provide anonymous health information and blood samples, creating one of the world’s largest medical databases for research on illnesses like diabetes, cancer and PTSD, and the impact of treatments and genetics.

McDonald nodded with interest. “Let’s figure out what we can do,” he said. “Let’s make those connections and do everything we can.”

Jonathan Varat, dean emeritus of the UCLA School of Law and the chief liaison for the UCLA partnership with the VA, discussed the plans for the legal clinic. The law school is currently recruiting an executive director for the clinic, and UCLA will provide $400,000 annually, with a goal of opening by fall 2017. The staff will be trained to represent veterans, learn how to appropriately interview people who have experienced trauma, and have experience with veterans-related paperwork that bogs down many former service members and prevents them from obtaining benefits, especially housing, Varat said.

The day after the tour, a volunteer clean-up effort made progress on the rejuvenation and expansion of the Veteran’s Garden at the VA campus. UCLA and the VA have built a collaboration with the Student Veterans of America and the Home Depot Foundation. Together with UCLA Recreation and UCLA student veteran volunteers more than 50 people cleared trash and debris, cut trees, and tilled the soil to make way for new plantings in the neglected 15-acre garden.

Mick Deluca, the assistant vice chancellor for UCLA Student Affairs–Campus Life, explained how reviving the park aims to also bring back prior uses like work therapy. Years ago, he said, vets would grow their own flowers and supply the blooms to flower marts. The park also has a view of the Jackie Robinson Baseball Stadium, which UCLA rents for $300,000 a year and where Bruins play home games. There are also plans to install walking trails, picnic tables, therapeutic gardening programs and more to encourage socialization, family outings, exercise and more, Deluca said.

“It’s such a perfect example of UCLA’s DNA: it’s service-oriented, it’s a healthy activity, it’s creating an environmentally friendly space, and I expect this will be an ongoing volunteer project,” Deluca said. “It’s fertile land, and we’re bringing it back to life, which is a great metaphor for our whole relationship with the VA.”