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Retired Army Special Forces member Robert Head stepped into a “palace” Tuesday morning.
The 85,000-square-foot-space around him, housing a long-awaited healthcare center for veterans in the Wilmington area, had just opened its doors to replace a former Veterans Affairs clinic that Head said was essentially a “closet.”
“This place is a big difference,” Head, a life member of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 11 in Wilmington, observed Tuesday inside the new Veterans Affairs Wilmington Health Care Center. “At the old place, you took a number, took your seat if you could find one. And if you got up, you lost your seat.
“But this is a palace.”
Head was among a crowd Tuesday morning for the ribbon cutting of the $25-million facility at 1705 Gardner Drive, at the entrance to Wilmington International Airport.
The center’s main interior resembles a well-lit mall, or airport lobby, lined with easy-to-find stations for primary care, eye care, prosthetics and more. Specialty services include audiology, cardiology, podiatry, radiology and dental care. Officials say having those provisions in Wilmington lifts burdens off local veterans like Head whose previous option for specialist care was a four-hour round-trip to the large VA Medical Center in Fayetteville.
Veterans on Tuesday said they’d waited at least a decade for the improvement, that being around the time they first heard of the center’s plan as demand mounted.
Daniel Hoffmann, director of the VA Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network, said Wilmington’s new site will give quality care to about 8,500 area veterans currently in the system. But, because southeast North Carolina’s population of veterans is growing so dramatically, the federal government intentionally overbuilt it. The projection is 15,000 veterans–possibly more–served there by 2021.
Hoffmann’s network covers North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia and is, he said, the fastest growing of all VA healthcare networks nationwide.
“The timing for this increase in modern healthcare space couldn’t be better for the veterans in this state,” Hoffmann said Tuesday.
The grand opening brought the area’s federal delegation to praise local veterans’ patience and tout the teamwork that developed the facility.
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-7) pointed out the Wilmington Health Care Center’s predecessor on Medical Center Drive was only 8,000 square feet, more than 10 times smaller than the building he stood in Tuesday. He also noted the new site’s special offerings included the area’s first full-service VA pharmacy.
“It indeed is something to celebrate,” McIntyre said. “It indeed is a super regional clinic to serve and to honor our veterans.”
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-3) told the crowd Tuesday that kind of focus needs to be a fixture in the Capitol, and he took the opportunity to highlight a bill he co-introduced to establish a “presidential veterans commission” to that end. “This commission will be there to advocate for the veterans of tomorrow, and to me it is a critical thing that we try to put this together.”
U.S. Sens. Kay Hagan (D) and Richard Burr (R) also joined for Tuesday’s opening. Both said they take seriously a responsibility to keep veterans’ needs front and center.
“Paramount to this commitment is ensuring that our veterans receive the quality healthcare in a timely and accessible manner,” said Hagan.
Burr said he “snuck down here” several times during the construction of the building (which overall covers 95,000 square feet) just to make sure it appeared on track. He said he was repeatedly impressed. “The contractors worked tirelessly.”
Added Burr, “This is a proud day, not just for Wilmington, but it’s a proud day for America. Any time Americans see us fulfill the commitment we’ve made to generations before … it is a proud day.”