Photo courtesy of Nolan Schroeder
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Following their meeting with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday morning, March 2, Bob Nelson of Hot Springs said he had never felt more confident about the future of the Hot Springs VA.
Nelson is one of several members of the ‘Save the VA’ (STVA) group that has continued to meet regularly for the past eight-plus years since the Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Dec. 12, 2011, that they were planning to close the Hot Springs VA Hospital and Domiciliary and replace it with a Community-Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC).
This past Monday morning, Nelson, along with fellow-STVA members Pat Russell and Don Ackerman, got to sit-in on a meeting with Sec. Wilkie and all of the state’s congressional leaders, as they watched another STVA member, Rich Gross, outline details on their proposal for a concept entitled OpVet.
According to the printed outline of what Gross presented to Sec. Wilkie, OpVet, which is an acronym for Operation Veterans Enrichment Town, is a demonstration project in the original Veterans Enrichment Town of Hot Springs, SD, that can be replicated in future “veterans enrichment towns’ across the country.
Goals of the operation, according to the outline of the program, include: Rehabilitating Veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and associated illnesses at the Hot Springs Domiciliary – a treatment center with a proven record of success; providing necessary medical treatment at a co-located hospital; providing workforce training, creating affordable housing; providing a safe community that reinforces treatment; and, providing Veterans recreation and retreat opportunities.
And based on the Secretary’s interaction and comments following STVA’s presentation, he is very much on board with exploring their ideas further and described them as “fascinating” and “well thought out.”
Part of STVA’s operational plan for OpVet includes using the domiciliary as a research and treatment facility and expanding the number of beds to capacity and providing opportunities for Veterans from across the country to receive treatment. The plan also calls for providing additional medical services for veterans in the domiciliary, thus emphasizing the importance of treating the “whole person.”
Another part of the operation plan is to establish “Veterans Enterprises” with the goal of providing workforce training to Veterans in the Compensate Work Therapy (CWT) program or others who have completed treatment. Projects currently in development include a regional business center staffed by veterans; a regional clearinghouse for training and job opportunities; Operation VHHP (Veterans Helping Hands Project) a non-profit with the goal of manufacturing small houses; and a project to renovate the previous community hospital to create affordable transitional housing for veterans.
Some of the benefits that veterans will receive by participating in Veterans Enterprises, include: learning to operate a business, receiving entrepreneurship training, and learning valuable experience in construction and related trades.
Also part of the operation plan of OpVet is to provide additional recreational and retreat opportunities for veterans in and after treatment. Two examples provided that have already been started in Hot Springs include Casting Vet, which is a fishing retreat experience created by and for veterans in the Hot Springs area. Another is Operation Black Hills Cabin, which provides a week-long retreat for wounded veterans.
In his presentation of the proposal to Sec. Wilkie, Gross told the Secretary that Hot Springs is the ideal location for this presentation project due to the fact that Hot Springs is the original “veterans town,” and the site of the first veteran’s hospital established over 100 years ago. “The community has a legacy of caring for veterans from the Civil War onward.”
It was further told to the Secretary that “the small size of the community of Hot Springs, the co-located VA domiciliary and hospital, its rural setting and the caring nature of its people provide recovering veterans with a sense of calm, support and opportunity apart from crowded and impersonal urban settings.”
In regards to what other types of communities, in addition to Hot Springs, can be “veterans enrichment towns,” the proposal outlined the fact that “project sponsors believe that smaller communities whose residents care about veterans, understand how veteran’s enterprises can support economic and workforce development, and have a strong positive vision for the future can make ideal veterans enrichment communities.”