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Valley Perspective : Injured Vets Need More Than a Band-Aid Station : Billions are spent elsewhere, but Sepulveda hospital services have been slashed. More shuttles to West L.A. facility and 24-hour emergency care are needed.

Bill Gilmore of Sherman Oaks is a free-lance writer, a former public relations man and a veteran

Are we to tell returnees from Bosnia conflicts that there is no Veterans Affairs hospital or emergency room in the San Fernando Valley? And only one shuttle bus, leaving once a day, Monday through Friday, for the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center in Brentwood?

Already discharged, but limping and disabled, Army veteran David Culp of Van Nuys is well aware of the absence of a local emergency room. But he is confused by the approval of $2 billion for the one-year U.S. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, following the rejection by Washington decision makers to replace the quake-ruined VA hospital in North Hills, at an estimated cost of $188 million.

Presently confined to crutches or a “hobble stick” because of knee surgery for correction of service injuries, Culp, 26, and his “chauffeur-wife” Theresa are also disturbed that, in place of the Valley’s former 24-hour VA emergency room, “they now have what is called ‘an urgent care center,’ essentially only a Band-Aid station, and that closes weekdays at 8 p.m. and on weekends at 4 p.m.,” he said.

Culp added that clinics are still in operation at the North Hills facility. But construction of a $65-million outpatient-clinics building will still mean that the seriously ill will have to continue traveling another 20 miles to West Los Angeles for VA hospital services.

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Culp, who has twice-a-week appointments at the West L.A. facility, pointed out that little consideration has been given to the need for transportation between the two medical centers: “A 15-person-capacity bus, leaving only once a day, is hardly sufficient. Guys and gals in wheelchairs, with afternoon doctor’s appointments, really have a problem. Emergencies? Forget it.”

After saying that most veterans can’t afford Medicare or private medical care on their meager pensions, Culp recalled what he believed was an Army recruiter’s promise of accessible health care. And he cited the allocation of $1 billion each for three unmanned U.S. spy aircraft, two of which were shot down by Bosnian Serb gunners in November.

“Please understand, I saw it and I agree with those necessary military expenditures,” Culp said. “But when you think about it, with $1 billion you could make a thousand millionaires--or a terrific, state-of-the-art, full-service veterans hospital. Maybe one a little better than the one that stood for 39 years, and was known as the Sepulveda veterans hospital.”

Many courageous members of our fighting forces believe that those flag-waving, bands-blaring honors, tendered to them annually, are very commendable. However, when it comes time for hobble sticks or wheelchairs, they honestly feel that more effort should be made, and extra dollars spent, to assure easily accessible emergency and medical care.

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One voicing that opinion is Sherrie E. Gogerty, 44, of Canoga Park, who served seven years in the Army, both in Vietnam and Germany. She feels strongly that “the USA debt to our dedicated members of the fighting forces can never be repaid.” And she believes that a full-time Valley VA emergency room is an absolute necessity: “On finally getting home, I don’t know what I would have done if that Sepulveda hospital had not been close by. I could just barely get from my bedroom to the bathroom, much less ever contemplate a trip over the hill.”

Gogerty said that many pensioner-veterans don’t have cars--and cannot afford them. And she said: “They aren’t in any physical condition to find their way on public buses to the West Los Angeles [VA hospital]. Many still haven’t recovered from traumas suffered during combat, and in some cases are now homeless. They weren’t in those conditions until they fought for their country. And now, are we to tell them that we can’t afford a nearby emergency room?”

Before the January 1994 temblor that destroyed the North Hills hospital and wreaked havoc to the 51-building medical complex, the 430-bed, full-care facility treated an average of 20,000 veterans annually. Earthquake damage there has been estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

Construction of a $65-million ambulatory care center, rather than a replacement hospital building, has been underway since March 1995. When completed in the fall, only outpatient services and minor office operations will be available. For veterans requiring inpatient or emergency services, a hospital spokesperson said the alternatives are: “Call 911,” and incur the high costs of a local private hospital. Or, time permitting, find someone to drive them to the Brentwood VA hospital. From the Valley, MTA buses take about three hours each way, including waiting times between buses.

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Outpatients of the North Hills VA medical center reside throughout the San Fernando Valley, and from as far away as Bakersfield, Fresno, beyond Lancaster, and even Las Vegas. They rely on relatives, friends, buses, trains or other public transportation, when possible.

At this moment, about 20,000 U.S. forces are serving on a potentially dangerous NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Veterans returning to the Valley may require serious treatment by a VA hospital.

“If such a time comes,” asks David Culp, “must we tell them that only clinics and an early-closing ‘Band-Aid room’ exist nearby? Judging by average pay rates of the services, it isn’t likely that many will be checking into private hospitals.”

Both veterans, Gogerty and Culp, believe that in preparation for present and new returnees, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the North Hills VA medical facility to restore the physician-staffed, 24-hour emergency room. And to generate funds for the operation of additional shuttle buses.

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