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VA Doctor Among Missing as Mobile Counseling Center Is Set Up After Condo Collapse

The Department of Veterans Affairs has deployed a mobile counseling center to Surfside, Florida, to provide therapy and support for the community affected by the catastrophic collapse of an oceanfront condominium.

The VA and Vet Centers — counseling centers and mobile crews that provide a range of services for combat veterans and military trauma victims — maintain a robust relief system for disaster response and will treat “anyone who comes” to the mobile center in Surfside, according to VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

“We have seen veterans, we’ve seen first responders and we’ve seen non-veterans. I’m really proud of the work of the team,” McDonough said during a news conference Wednesday.

The deployment comes as a community struggles with the enormity of loss, including 18 confirmed deaths and 145 who have been missing since last Thursday.

Among the missing is Dr. Gary Cohen, a physician at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center in Alabama. Cohen is missing, along with his brother, Dr. Brad Cohen, who owns a condo in the Champlain Towers South building.

“Our prayers go out today to him, his family and our team in Tuscaloosa,” McDonough said.

Cohen was in Florida to visit his terminally ill father, Brad’s wife, Soriya Cohen, told ABC News. She said she had lost hope.

“Who is going to survive that rubble?” she asked ABC, pointing to the building.

Cohen earned his degree in osteopathic medicine from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1989 and served his residency at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City.

He is a physiatrist, specializing in rehabilitation and physical therapy and training. He has practiced medicine in Alabama since 2006.

“Dr. Gary Cohen is one of our physicians and has worked many years providing care to our Veterans. He is part of the Tuscaloosa VAMC family and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family during this incredibly difficult time,” Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center Director John Merkle said in a statement.

The VA Mobile Vet Center has set up services at St. Joseph Catholic Church, about eight blocks from the condominium.

The team has extensive experience in disaster response, according to Jessica Schiefer, the public affairs officer for VA’s Readjustment Counseling Service. Among the four members are a licensed social worker who responded to the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17; an outreach specialist who is a combat veteran; a former emergency room social worker; and a clinical psychologist who responded to the mass shootings in Parkland and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 in 2016, as well as Hurricane Maria four years ago.

“Many Vet Center staff are also veterans and can often relate to managing through grief, trauma and transition,” Schiefer said. “It’s important for us to take care of each other in the communities we are in and ensure no one ever feels like they have to go through it alone.”

McDonough said VA continues its response to another national disaster — the COVID-19 pandemic — by providing services and outreach to Louisianans who remain homeless after back-to-back hurricanes last year and providing vaccines to people in the Pacific northwest who are flocking to cooling centers to escape the unprecedented heat.

“We have a dedicated team with the capability to deploy around the country, a capability that is undergirding a lot of our mobile vaccination units … the Vet Centers have their own independent capability to provide mental health services, and they provide services to hundreds of communities across the country,”

In February, VA deployed two mobile Vet Centers to the U.S. Capitol to ensure that National Guard members, Capitol Police, congressional staff and others had access to no-cost mental- health services after the Jan. 6 riot.

“Should anyone outside of the veteran and military community reach out or come by looking for our support, our team will listen, seek to understand their concerns and offer community resources that are available to them,” Schiefer said. “If an individual is in crisis, our team will ensure the proper support and assistance is provided.’’

— Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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