After a long battle with alcoholism following his return from the Vietnam War, Lawrence Lopez began getting psychological counseling two years ago at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport.
But the Huntington resident found himself missing some of his twice-weekly psychotherapy appointments when he could not find a baby-sitter for the two young grandchildren he watches while his daughter is at work.
"It's very important that I'm able to keep at it," Lopez, 65, said at Northport, where he had come for a recent two-hour counseling session. "Therapy is helping me keep a commitment to myself to keep moving toward recovery."
Testing its ability to remove a critical impediment that kept some veterans from getting needed medical or psychological help, the VA has opened one of the federal agency's first drop-in day care centers, on the grounds of the Northport medical center.
The two-year pilot program, one of only three such centers nationwide, can handle as many as 30 children at a time on a drop-in basis.
Veterans with appointments at the medical center may leave children or grandchildren between 8 months and 12 years old free of charge for as many as 31/2 hours per day. Hours for the day care center are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
"She likes it here," Anthony Vanderpool, of Brentwood, said of his daughter, Yolanda Yvette Vanderpool, 10 months old.
Last year, the VA reported that nearly a third of veterans said they wanted the agency to provide child care during clinic visits. More than one in 10 said the lack of child care had forced them to cancel or postpone clinic appointments. And VA officials said a lack of day care was undermining their efforts to encourage broader use of VA health services by women.
Lopez traces his psychological troubles to a 1969 incident in Vietnam, when he was trapped in an open field and repeatedly fired on by an unseen sniper.
Vanderpool, 47, has struggled emotionally since he was caught in crossfire during a 2004-05 Iraq deployment.
He comes to the medical center five days a week for psychotherapy and anger management. During appointments, he leaves Yolanda Yvette to play in the center's sunlit playroom, which feature child gates, padded floors and pastel walls painted with underwater scenes.
The new child care program is one of three announced last year under a nationwide pilot program that calls for another center to open in Tacoma, Wash. The first opened in Buffalo in October.
For years, Northport has offered subscription-based day care for children of employees, but never on a drop-in basis.
"Many veterans have said they have finally been able to utilize services that they never have made use of before," said center director Miriam Truss.
Lopez said having day care is a relief. "I'd be lost without this," he said, as a grandchild grabbed a plastic toy drill and poked him. "I'm in recovery now. It has made a big change in my life."