Although it is mission accomplished for now, following a 260-mile march from Edinburg to San Antonio last week, Valley veterans say the fight for a VA hospital is far from over.
Veterans say they accomplished what they were trying to do, which was gain national media coverage for the march, and emphasize the need for a VA hospital in the Valley. Now veterans say the biggest challenge is addressing what they call misinformation about the need for a VA hospital in the region.
“Our network just grew bigger, now we have people who have participated and hopefully have those who want to participate and take action rather than not do anything about it,” said march coordinator, and former Iraq war veteran Jesus Bocanegra. “I think the people that were there throughout the whole march saw the end result, like something has happened and that people are doing something about it.”
About 30 veterans and citizens completed the march to San Antonio over the course of one week. The veterans were shown on a CNN I-report on Monday, March 16, when they reached Alice on Day 3 of the march.
See the I-report here: http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/ireports/2009/03/16/ireport.vet.march.cnn
“I think the hardest challenge is the misinformation that is being passed around without actually speaking with somebody that has experience, we have people telling us ‘we already have a hospital’ and that’s not true,” Bocanegra said.
Bocanegra refers to the VA recently expanding outpatient clinics in Harlingen and McAllen, and signing contracts with private hospitals so that veterans can receive inpatient and emergency care locally. The VA has also announced plans for a $40 million Ambulatory Surgery and Specialty Outpatient Center in Harlingen with a groundbreaking set to take place in April.
The VA has no plans to add an ER room or inpatient beds to the ambulatory center. Instead, the VA announced last year it would sign a contract with two local private hospitals - one in the Upper Valley and one in the Lower Valley - for ER and inpatient bed services. McAllen Medical and Valley Baptist are considered the frontrunners.
The VA estimates that once the ambulatory center is completed it will eliminate approximately 95 percent of the four-hour one-way trips many veterans make to Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio.
Veterans organizations argue that the plan for contracts would mean a lot of money going to the private hospitals. “Why not just build a VA hospital and be done with it?,” Hidalgo County Veterans Service Director Emilio de los Santos asked recently.
Jose Maria Vasquez, commander of America’s Last Patrol Post No. 3 told the Rio Grande Guardian and the Edinburg Review in a video interview last week that he got angrier with every step he took on the way to San Antonio. Vasquez first staged a march to San Antonio in 2005.
“We have 117,000 veterans in the Rio Grande Valley and across South Texas. Why do we not get a hospital? I guess I am angrier and angrier as each step that I took this week,” Vasquez said. “Why do we have to do this? Why do we have to march 260 miles? Why do we have to fight another war? A war to get our benefits that we rightfully deserve.”
The VA has currently announced a new VA hospital to replace their old facility in Colorado, where about $2.3 billion is being used for more than 426,000 veterans there. The White House has released a statement by President Barack Obama on stimulus funds that will provide $621 million to build new military hospital for soldiers and veterans in Fort Hood, Texas.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso has announced that the El Paso Veterans’ Administration will receive $3.9 million in federal stimulus money to repair and modernize projects at the El Paso VA Clinic and Fort Bliss National Cemetery.