Recordnet: More of the same: Frustrated vets told proposed medical facility has fallen on priority list
By: Joe Goldeen
FRENCH CAMP – A month after some of the 80,000 veterans living in the Northern San Joaquin Valley demonstrated to bring attention to the broken promises resulting in the stalled expansion of much-needed medical facilities here, the region’s two representatives in Congress hosted a town hall meeting Friday to ask questions and get some updates from federal officials on the front lines.
What resulted was an expression of continued frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs, with Congress and with the administration for appearing to turn its back on military veterans.
Richard Campos, 62, a retired San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputy and veteran of America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, expressed how many of the more than 100 veterans who packed a meeting hall Friday at Health Plan of San Joaquin feel.
“Funding, funding, funding. Why was it not an issue when we funded this war (in Iraq and Afghanistan)? We are spending trillions of dollars on these wars. Why is it a problem now to serve these veterans?” Campos asked. Following the meeting, he talked about the rancor these funding debates are causing among veterans groups around the country.
“There is a distrust with the government. This just brings more distrust. It saddens me that we have to get to this point. It’s disgraceful to all veterans nationwide,” Campos said.
Campos, like so many others, finds it completely wrong that veterans in the San Joaquin Valley are pitted against their peers elsewhere.
“It’s unfair to me that we veterans have to fight other locations. Our project in San Joaquin County is just as important as projects in Louisville or Ohio. Why make us squabble? If it’s needed, it should be done for all veterans,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, who co-sponsored the town hall with Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, in the spirit of bipartisanship, said in his opening remarks that such a forum is “important to allow veterans to have their voices heard. Working together is essential.”
He was followed by Denham, who said: “We must all work with one voice to advocate for the French Camp construction. We need that facility built as soon as it can be. We will get this done working together, whatever it takes.”
The French Camp segment of the project he was referring to – the $354 million Livermore Realignment Project – has already been planned and designed, and a location has been selected adjacent to San Joaquin General Hospital. All it needs now is funding authorization, and that is presently more than a year away since the project fell significantly on the nationwide priority list for VA construction beginning in 2015.
It consists of building the 150,000-square-foot Community Based Outpatient Clinic and 120-bed, 150,000-square-foot Community Living Center on 52 acres, a well as a central plant and other infrastructure.
While funding is holding up construction, it won’t be easy to come by in the near future. The best one VA official could offer was an appropriation in 2016.
“The approved answer I can give you is two to five years,” said Leonardo Flor, the VA’s western regional director for construction and facilities management based on Mare Island. He noted that the need for costly safety and seismic improvements to many VA facilities around the nation has pushed the French Camp project from No. 9 on the major priority list to No. 20.
Tino Adame, one of the area’s leading advocates for veterans’ causes who serves as the District 11 commander of the American Legion, could not understand why funding is not forthcoming for an important region within the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, the largest in the nation.
“In Palo Alto, it seems like their pockets are full of money. We need to get rid of those ridiculous modules,” Adame said, referring to five poorly constructed temporary buildings put in behind the current and overburdened French Camp clinic that have been plagued by a lack of bathrooms and leaky roofs.
Xochitl Paderes, an active member of Stockton’s Karl Ross Post 16 American Legion and an advocate for women veterans’ causes, took the congressmen and VA officials to task over a number of issues, including the severe backlog of benefit claims and not doing enough to ensure construction funding after five years of planning.
“How is it appropriate that you now sit here saying you will fight for us. At this point, it’s a lot of talk, a lot of talk. … How are you going to prove you are putting in the time and effort? At this point, talk is not working,” Paderes said.