Veterans emphasize importance of VA hospital

Some were tearful. Some were increasingly enraged at the thought that their health care could be moved.

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``If it weren't for the Walla Walla facility, I would be dead.''

PATRICK DONNELLY

Between his thumb and finger Patrick Donnelly held up a coin in front of the crowd at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino conference room on Friday.

From a distance, it appeared the size and shape of something from one of the slot machines down the hall. Undoubtedly it felt like a prize to Donnelly.

Having struggled with chemical dependency after his years of service, the disabled veteran received his 10-year sobriety coin on Wednesday. Before the crowd of 200 people, he held it up as proof of the significance of Walla Walla's veterans hospital.

``If it weren't for the Walla Walla facility, I would be dead,'' Donnelly said.

Tales of personal hardship came one by one as veterans from the 14-county area served by the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center made their case for Walla Walla's facility. Some were tearful. Some were increasingly enraged at the thought that their health care could be moved.

How could the federal government rely so heavily on rural communities to faithfully supply troops, then dare to focus its health-care dollars in urban communities, many asked.

``Eight hours of driving _ too hard for me,'' said Pendleton resident Ron Esselstyn of his trips to Portland's VA hospital.

And for the $80 he spends in gas, only $28 is reimbursed, he said.

The majority of the 38 people who testified Friday opposed even the idea of moving services to the Tri-Cities.

``We don't even know if accessible replacement services are available ...,'' said La Grande resident David Whitson.

He said moving a facility to a more populated community may help the federal VA with its own numbers, but it could further isolate veterans who prefer rural living and diminish their access to health care.

If the VA invested in Walla Walla's hospital _ or added more clinics _ the government would surely see an increase in use here.

``If you build it, they will come,'' said Milton-Freewater veteran Sarah Royse.

Milton-Freewater resident Dick Stewart said moving services likely wouldn't save money.

``It's just moving the cost to other locations,'' he said.

Hermiston resident Robert Fiocchi said veterans are becoming like wheat in rural communities _ something easily overlooked by passing eyes.

Many vets have given so much of themselves in combat, they shouldn't now be forced to battle for health care, he said.

``I want to know when we can quit fighting,'' Fiocchi said. ``Why am I fighting? I'm tired.''

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