Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on Friday (Sept. 16) recalled his own hospitalization from injuries he received as a Vietnam veteran. He was sitting in the Fisher House, Palo Alto VA's lodging for families of veterans on long hospital stays.
He had just participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Defenders Lodge, a $12.5 million "home away from home" for veterans who must travel to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System to receive treatment.
Shinseki, a general who received two Purple Hearts for his valor and injuries, said having family members near makes all the difference in helping wounded veterans heal.
But he did not have that luxury when he was hospitalized, he said.
"I remember having to lay in a hospital bed and my wife had to fly in and I counted the number of days when she could visit," he said, adding that they could not afford for long hotel stays.
At a ceremony with a full color guard and an audience of nearly 200 veterans, former POWs, their families, officials and dignitaries, Shinseki presided over the groundbreaking and honoring of POWs. Other speakers who honored the veterans included U.S. Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Mike Honda (D-San Jose/Silicon Valley).
"We love our history once it's been made, but we don't always recognize that we are a part of that history. Today I think we are," Eshoo said. She added that Shiseki has also approved a second Fisher House for VA Palo Alto.
Shinseki said building the Defenders Lodge will mark a turning point, where accommodations specifically for veterans will have a lasting impact for decades to come. The need is also great at the Palo Alto center because VA Palo Alto has so many specialized programs, such as the Traumatic Brain Injury unit and Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, he said.
Palo Alto receives veterans from Hawaii, Guam, Reno, Nev., Fresno and Sacramento facilities for specialized care.
The new building, which could open in March 2013, will replace the aging, temporary 49-bed "Hometel" that has served as lodging for more than 185,000 veteran patients since it opened in 1990.
The temporary buildings were first used as a replacement hospital facility after the VA hospital at Palo Alto was damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake, Palo Alto VA spokeswoman Kerri Childress said.
After the new hospital was completed, the building was turned into lodging for veterans who must travel more than 50 miles to receive medical treatment but who cannot afford the high costs of Bay Area hotels. Some treatments go on for months while others are only overnight, she said.
The Defenders Lodge will double the number of units, offering free accommodations in 54 suites with up to 108 queen-size beds in a 34,000 square-foot building. The lodge will offer wireless Internet service, will be ADA compliant and will have accommodations for spouses and caregivers.
Eshoo has supported accommodations for veterans and their families, and helped fundraise for the Fisher House, which opened in 2006 and offers housing for families of hospitalized veterans. The value of having loved ones and caregivers near is incalculable, according to Eshoo.
"There isn't any pharmacological drug that takes the place of a family," she said.
She said the Defenders Lodge did not require any fundraising to qualify for the money. When she and others worked to have the Fisher House built, they had to come up with $1 million before the Fisher Foundation grant could be applied, she said.
The Defenders Lodge represents the kind of partnership that is the future, she said. "There isn't any institution that can flourish today if it isn't collaborative," she added.
PenFed Foundation President Christopher Flynn said the foundation had built two hospice rooms at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, but foundation board members saw that needs have changed as medical technology has saved more lives.
"In Vietnam, people died quickly in the battlefield," he said. In the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there is now need to treat veterans throughout their life spans, he said.
"Hopefully, this is the start of a public/private partnership," he said. The PenFed Credit Union is giving the foundation a loan for the total amount of money so the project, which has been four years in the making, can move forward, he said. As the foundation raises the money, it will pay back the credit union.
Childress said the foundation's gift is a godsend, since the hometel is scheduled for demolition in two years to make way for a new ambulatory-care building.
"We knew we would not get appropriated funds for this," she said, since the Defenders Lodge is not a clinical building.
The existing hometel has served 5,638 veterans from January through August 2011, but there has not been enough room and many veterans must be turned away. During the same 8-month period in 2011, 2,560 veterans were on the wait list, with only about half of those being placed in a bed, she said.
"I know vets who will not come for care if they cannot get a room," Childress said, adding that some veterans sleep in their cars when no rooms are available.
Walking through the hometel's spare halls, Childress said the Defenders Lodge will be like a 5-star hotel – a stark comparison to the hospital-like setting.
"There are lots of plumbing and electrical issues. It just never ends," she said of the 20-year-old mobile structures.
Ronald Tillman, a veteran from Oakland who was getting a prosthetic limb so he can walk again after having his leg amputated, said his current hometel stay is his fifth.
"I would never even make it up this way of it wasn't for this," he said. "A whole bunch of vets would be out of luck."
Tillman's wife, Davella, said she stays at the hometel and give her husband moral support.
"It would be really difficult for us and for me to not be here with him. I don't have to go home and be all nervous and worry of he's having a bad day," she said.
Friday was also national POW-MIA Day, and Eshoo, Honda and Shinseki honored several POW veterans for their sacrifices.
"I'm sorry. … I know that Congress has not has the best record with our veterans," Honda, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said.
He and Eshoo said that as long as they are members of Congress, they are committed to making sure the promises are kept.
"There's no words that I have in my vocabulary that I can say thank you," Honda said.