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Sunday, April 14, 2024

For Their Service

Gone are the tables for four, lined with linen. So are the carafes of wine. No longer can you savor the waft of veal saltimbocca or shrimp diablo.

The red brick building at 1100 N. Burkhardt Road where Raffi Manna served as restaurateur for 13 years closed at the end of 2014. Since late June, however, there’s been new life at Raffi’s, albeit in very different form. It now houses the Vet Center, a Veterans Administration facility that provides counseling primarily to combat zone veterans, but also to drone operators, anyone affected by Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and those who were assigned to what the military calls mortuary services — dealing with human remains.

At a time when the VA is under heavy scrutiny amid accusations of delays at hospitals and clinics, the landscape for veterans in Southwest Indiana has never looked better. The three-story, 96,000-square-foot Veterans Affairs Health Care Center near the intersection of Burkhardt and Vogel Road opened in 2011, creating an outpatient clinic three times larger and more advanced technologically than its predecessor in Downtown Evansville. Now comes the relocation of the Vet Center, from an aged, small brick building on N. Weinbach Avenue to the bright, new space that once housed Raffi’s. VA rules require separate facilities for its vet centers and healthcare sites.

Mike Richardson, a broker/developer with RE/MAX Commercial, gets credit for providing a vision that turned an Italian restaurant into an array of rooms serving the psychological needs of veterans. Richardson worked with the VA several years ago to select the site that is now the VA Health Care Center, and VA officials turned to him when searching for a new Vet Center location.

“We looked at five to 10 properties,” says Richardson. “They narrowed it to three, and eventually chose Raffi’s because of its proximity to the VA Health Care Center and its visibility from Burkhardt.”

At that point, events moved quickly. Manna had been ready to sell Raffi’s for some time, and when the VA chose to settle there, Richardson purchased the building from Manna and signed the VA to a 10-year lease. Paperwork was completed last November, and Raffi’s served its final meals six weeks later on New Year’s Eve.

“The entire process took a year and a half,” Richardson says about the selection of the property and makeover. “The Vet Center gave me a complete set of their requirements — the exact size of the break room, restrooms, counseling offices, group therapy offices, etc. If a counseling office in Kansas City is 10-foot-by-12-foot, the counseling office here has to be the same exact size. I went to ARC Construction to work with Danny Bateman to design the plans. It involved literally demolishing the entire inside of the building. They took it down to the four walls. The only things that remained from Raffi’s were the two restrooms. We had to replace the entire roof, the entire HVAC system. There are three brand new HVAC units on the roof. We added a sprinkler system that the VA required and shatter-resistant film to the inside of the windows. It’s a clear film. You’d never notice it. But it makes the windows bullet resistant.”

Bateman, president of ARC, says the four to five months that ARC served onsite as general contractor were “very typical of a renovation,” and even included new landscaping and re-sealing the parking lot. The patio at the south end of the building also was refurbished, and more than 30 homeless vets gathered there for a cookout one week after the Vet Center opened. Future plans include an addition to the back of the building, providing a 14-foot-high and 40-foot-long canopy for the vehicle that serves as a Mobile Vet Center.

Today, the 4,200-square-foot Vet Center under the direction of Team Leader Paul Greene looks and smells new inside. Warm, muted colors prevail. There’s a feeling of comfort and security inside, which is exactly what the VA wants in a facility serving veterans trying to start a new life or restart their previous one following service in harrowing conditions. Greene’s staff includes an office manager and four counselors. A vocational rehabilitation specialist also is available. All counselors are licensed, and six of the seven employees are veterans themselves. While the nearby Health Care Center serves veterans in a more clinical fashion — doctors, nurses, labs, and scans — the Vet Center provides a slower pace and more personal interaction. Next to Marriage and Family Counselor Trudy Buckman’s office is the Play Therapy room filled with toys that every 4-year-old would surely love to take home. The office and Play Therapy room, where the counselor can use play therapy to interact with children dealing with stress and trauma, are separated by glass, allowing mom and dad to take their time with the counselor, knowing their kids are happy and safe nearby.

At the end of one hallway, right about where Raffi’s kitchen stood, is now a group room with a conference table surrounded by large executive chairs. At one end is a Smart Board, at the other a wall-mounted flat screen TV.

Richardson admits that federal regulations sometimes made the project complex, but overall, “It was a fairly smooth process,” he says. “I just followed their rules.”

Richardson is not a vet, but his 88-year-old father Frank served in the U.S. Navy and led his son into the commercial real estate business. “I think he’s proud of me for being involved with this, proud of the project,” says the younger Richardson. “I know it makes me feel good. We believe it’s helping the community.”

For more information about the Vet Center, call 812-473-5993 or visit va.gov/directory/guide/facility.asp?ID=5453.

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