At Florence VFW listening session, veterans urge lawmakers to stop VA closure
NORTHAMPTON — An emotional, standing-room-only listening session on Wednesday evening at VFW Post 8006 gave veterans a chance to speak their minds to government officials about a proposal to close the VA hospital in Leeds.
About 100 people showed up to the meeting in Florence, many of them veterans or employees of the medical center at 421 N. Main St., to express outrage, sadness and fear over the physical and mental health consequences they expect many patients of the facility to suffer if it closes.
Also in attendance were U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester; state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton; state Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, and Jacob Oliveira, D-Ludlow; Mayor Gina-Louse Sciarra; and several city councilors.
Testimony from the meeting will be shared with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, McGovern said. He reminded attendees that the closure is only a proposal and a lengthy public process needs to take place before a final decision is made.
Sciarra said the city will work with federal and state officials to fend off any attempt to close the Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where an estimated 21,000 veterans receive care. She called the recommendation, included in a federal Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) report last month, “horribly, horribly wrong.”
McGovern, who sent a letter of opposition last week to McDonough that was signed by all but one member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, said he and other officials will “go to (President) Biden” to stop the closure if that’s what it takes.
“I’ll be honest with you: I am fed up to the ears with bureaucrats in Washington making decisions that are bad for veterans, bad for their families and bad for our community,” McGovern said. “They say that the facility would need about $121 million of renovations to get up to VA standards, but the federal government just spent over $100 million to modernize the Leeds VA and there’s nearly $100 million more in the works. It makes no sense.”
John Paradis, a veteran advocate and former outreach coordinator at the VA in Leeds, said he gets “all my care at the VA.” He said the psychiatric treatment program is highly regarded nationally, and a similar quality of care is not available anywhere near the Pioneer Valley.
“I’ve seen veterans who, to a person, have said their lives are saved by the care they receive at the VA,” Paradis said. “The veterans that reside up on that hill, on Bear Hill? It’s a family. They have a connection to the providers at Leeds, in close proximity to the social services they need and they understand how to work together. That’s not something that bean counters in Washington can put a price tag on.”
Dave Kelliher of Chicopee said he had a mental health crisis a few months ago, and his medication “was not doing its job. … Instead of committing suicide, I went up to Leeds.” He said he spoke to “the fellow at the gate, and he took care of me.”
Kelliher said he was “lucky” to room with another Vietnam veteran during his stay at the VA and the two became close. The care providers “went all out” and connected him with crisis services; he said he’s afraid that the younger generations of Pioneer Valley veterans will not have the same resources available to them.
According to the closure recommendation, inpatient services would be relocated to Newington, Conn., about an hour south of Leeds, while outpatient services would be moved to “a new site in the vicinity of Springfield.”
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Jim Bouchard, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Post 875, was shot in the chest in Vietnam. His son Joshua, a Marine Corps veteran, was paralyzed and lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. Jim said Joshua attended two doctor’s appointments at the VA on Wednesday.
If Joshua needed to travel to Connecticut for appointments, “he wouldn’t make it. He can’t travel. His lungs have failed. He can’t drive, anyway,” Bouchard said. “If the VA leaves? They saved my life and they’re saving his life right now. Please God, you guys have got to get the government’s act together.”
A presidential commission will make further recommendations to Biden next year. The report also recommends closing VA hospitals in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chillicothe, Ohio.
Brian Steele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.