Area veterans happy at reprieve for Leeds VA, but urge continued vigilance

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds is shown in March. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

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    State Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, a veteran of the Afghan war, speaks to about 40 people gathered for a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

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    David Felty, Commander of Michael F. Curtin VFW Post 8006 in Florence, speaks at a "Save the Northampton VA!" rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds on Monday, March 28, 2022.

  • Air Force veteran Tom Patrick, center, of Hatfield attends a “Save the Northampton VA!” rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System facility in Leeds, March 28. Patrick said he has received services in Leeds for about 50 years. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/28/2022 9:24:34 PM
Modified: 6/28/2022 9:21:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Amherst military veteran Shawn Parent learned in March that Northampton’s VA medical center was on a list of Veterans Affairs facilities recommended for closure, she was angry and worried.

“I was scared, because now you’re telling me you’re going to take away my mental health care?” said Parent, 66, who gets all of her care at the VA facility. She said “out in the real world,” people don’t understand, for example, that when a veteran says they experienced MST, they mean “military sexual trauma.” “Those doctors don’t understand.”

But on Tuesday, Parent was feeling in a very different mood after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced plans to eliminate the federal commission that was tasked with reviewing the VA’s list of recommended closures, which included the 105-acre VA campus in Leeds officially known as the Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“That was the best news,” she said. “The fact that the VA is going to stay open is a wonderful thing. For now.”

Parent’s happiness and cautious optimism were echoed by other area veterans and their advocates, who on Monday evening breathed a sigh of relief when news broke that Northampton’s VA medical center will not close and retired warriors in need of services will not have to drive to Vermont, Connecticut or elsewhere in the state.

The bipartisan group of senators — led by Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — announced Monday that they would refuse to confirm members to the federal Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, effectively killing the appointed body that could have recommended moving forward with the VA closure in Northampton.

In 2018, then-president Donald Trump signed into law the VA MISSION Act, which required the VA to draft a list of recommendations to “modernize” its medical facilities and health care delivery. That had meant the privatization of some services and the proposed closure of facilities in Leeds, Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chillicothe, Ohio.

All politics

But while the group of senators and others celebrate the development as a victory, some local veteran leaders noted that this is just the latest attempt to privatize or slash VA care.

“This is being done by a group of senators, and yet there’s a midterm election coming up and we know there’s one party that doesn’t like single-payer health care, and that’s what the VA is,” said Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veteran Services. “They could go right back around and turn it around again.”

Connor said he does feel good about the likelihood of the Northampton facility staying around given the fact that the federal government has spent more than $108 million on projects at the facility in recent years. And as Congress works on legislation to care for more veterans who will have complex health needs from, for example, exposure to toxic burn pits or fuel dumps, Connor said it’s likely more VA clinics and hospitals will be built. But he’s still skeptical going forward.

“Has the rug been pulled out from beneath us before? Sure it has,” he said. “We’re veterans — we’re used to it.”

Timothy Niejadlik, a veteran U.S. Army officer and the director of Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans Services, expressed similar sentiments in an emailed statement while praising the lawmakers who halted the AIR Commission.

“We do hope veterans and their families continue to remain vigilant in protecting our local VA facilities as we move forward,” Niejadlik said.

An Iraq War veteran and Bronze Star recipient, Niejadlik said that though modernizing facilities is a great idea, “we just don’t want to close facilities to meet those needs.”

Parent, the Amherst veteran, stressed the importance of the medical center for veterans looking for critically needed care and a place of their own that understands their specific needs.

“It’s a safe place because people there understand what you’re going through, whether it’s PTSD or using drugs or being an addict,” she said.

The medical center is where she received care after having a stroke several weeks ago and somewhere she knows her doctor, a woman, and can feel comfortable. “They understand your plight.”

Staying closer to home

In late March, veterans, elected officials, VA staff and other supporters rallied at the Leeds campus in opposition to the proposed closure, including state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, who is one of the chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. In a statement, Velis praised the lawmakers who ended the AIR commission and with it the “irresponsible proposal” to close the Leeds facility.

“Veterans and advocates rallied, they spoke out, and they showed how critical it is for our region that this facility remains open,” Velis said. “The powers that be heard loud and clear from us that this would have had a disastrous effect if they went forward, and I am glad that they listened.”

Walter White, a U.S. Army veteran and past commander of Orange American Legion Post 172, was unaware of the news until informed by a reporter.

“I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened,” he said. “They take care of a lot of veterans at that VA, and why should they have to go to Springfield, Connecticut or New York or whatever? That’s totally stupid.”

White, 74, said he has been visiting the Leeds facility “ever since Christ was a child.” He said he has a lot of veteran friends who use the Leeds location and he knows they’re relieved to be able to stay closer to home for their care.

“I think it would have been a total disaster,” he said about a Leeds closure, referring to the logistics involved and the high price of gas. “I wouldn’t have traveled that far. I would have gone to White River Junction (in Vermont).”

White served in the Army from 1965 to 1972, notching two years in Korea and two in Vietnam.

Marvin Shedd, chair of the Bernardston Veterans Memorial Committee, said he was pleased with the government’s decision, as a closure would have had a negative impact on local veterans. Shedd is not a veteran but feels called to advocate on their behalf partially because his father was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II and his mother’s brother was killed in the war.

“They were going to have to travel well outside what was conceivable for most of them,” he said. “So it’s a very good move in my opinion and I think the majority of veterans agents in the Valley feel the same way.”

“Leeds is so valuable to these local folks,” he added.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com. Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@recorder.com.


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