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‘A System Worth Saving’ group gets first-person accounts at meeting

HOT SPRINGS - About 30 local veterans gave strong, passionate testimonies on behalf of keeping the VA Black Hills Health Care System’s facility open in Hot Springs, before a crowd of more than 100 people at the American Legion on Monday, Feb. 17.

Their main objective was to provide supportive information to Ralph Bozella, the National Chairman of Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation with the American Legion, and Roscoe Butler, assistant director for health care in Washington D.C., who are part of ‘A System Worth Saving’ task force. They will write a report on the quality of health care veterans receive at the VA Black Hills Health Care System.  

The crowd listened intently as Bozella spoke.

“It (VA) impacts the lives of you, me, and people who don’t even live here. We see a trend of the VA shutting down,” he said. “Little by little services are going away. We demand the VA stop shutting down services.” 

Pat Russell of Hot Springs, co-chair of the Save the VA committee said, “We still got a fight to do. We need all citizens to show up and have input to make an impact.”

Jennifer L. Buddenborg, Senior Field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “The VA has been here 108 years. It’s more than a beautiful place.” Holding up a booklet the Historic Trust has distributed titled, ‘Honoring Our Nation’s Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing, she said, “We’re in this with you guys.”

Brian Brewer, President of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said, “Warriors have fought for the United States since World War I. Indian Health Services cannot meet the needs of their veterans, so they (veterans) are going to Washington. We love the VA. I am treated with respect here. They take care of us. They meet our needs.”

As World War II veteran Bob Brown of Hot Springs introduced himself over the microphone, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. “I was the last one to have surgery up here before it (surgery) closed down,” he said. Adding that cutting back on services and moving them somewhere else is one of the worst things they can do, he said, “If I need help, it’s right here. I don’t have to go anywhere else.”

Many of the veterans said that this VA is the best they have been to and that they aren’t just a number but are greeted by name. Some expressed their objections to being sent to Fall River Health Services for health care needs, saying they want their records at the VA not at Fall River Health Services. Others said that they had been treated at other VA facilites across the country, but this is the one they decided to settle near.

“This is a good healing place,” said Norm Pudwill of Hot Springs.

Virgil Hagel of Nebraska said, “Vets of western Nebraska, from North Platte, Valentine to Chadron, Scottsbluff to Alliance get care here they don’t get other places. We need this VA here. We fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, but there’s no reason we should have to fight the war to keep this VA open.”

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Rodney Parks, representing the State Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said, “I’ve met people from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska who all come here. It’s worth saving.” Some veterans come from farther away, such as Oregon, said Angie Koch, a veteran of Hot Springs.

Eric Tynjala of Hot Springs said, “This VA gives me the best care I’ve ever had. I’m alive because of this VA.” He also expressed his concern about whether his son, who is serving in Iraq, will have VA services when he needs them. “We need to keep this VA open,” he said. “The younger kids deserve it.”

Jim Stevens, fire chief of the Hot Springs volunteer fire department, said that the City’s firefighters are all volunteers and have a good working relationship with the VA fire department. “The City fire department has 38 members. What about the fire, police and security (at the VA)? The buildings will still be here.”

After hearing the testimonies, Bozell said that the task force would be visiting the VA to talk with personnel and patients and also would be meeting with the Save the VA Committee and the Fall River Health Services. The task force will look into who is making the decisions for the VA, what the quality of services are to veterans, what effect the VA has on the community and its economic impact, he said.

“We’ll take the concerns and put them into report form,” Bozella said. “Then the reports will be put into book form and given to the Senators, Congressmen and the White House.”

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