WALLA WALLA: Murray Speaks at Ribbon Cutting for New VA Outpatient Clinic

Apr 15 2014

Since being scheduled for closure in 2004, Murray has led decade-long fight to save the facility, bring new investments to Walla Walla VA

Clinic will serve more than 70,000 veterans in Southeastern WA, OR, and ID

Today, Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 U.S. Senator Patty Murray joined local veterans and community leaders for the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new, state-of-the-art, Walla Walla VA Outpatient Clinic.  In 2009, Sen. Murray introduced and passed into law legislation authorizing $71.4 million in federal funding for the construction of the 67,000 sq. ft. outpatient clinic opening Tuesday. The Walla Walla VA Outpatient Clinic will provide a wide array of services in addition to primary care, including: gender-specific care for women veterans, behavioral health care, occupational and physical therapy, outpatient surgery and specialty care, pharmacy and pulmonary services, and will host a sleep laboratory. 

All of us here know that caring for veterans isn’t something you do with a couple of doctor’s visits – it’s a commitment that lasts a lifetime,” Senator Murray said. “And that’s really why I’m so proud to be here today, because the facility we’re here to open reflects the commitment  this country, this community, and all of you have made to our veterans.”

Senator Murray’s remarks, as prepared, below:

“Thank you so much, Brian, for that introduction.

“And thank you all for being here today – I can’t tell you how great it is to be in Walla Walla again and celebrate the opening of this facility with all of you.

“I’d like to quickly recognize a few other people who’ve joined us this afternoon:  Larry Caroll, Director of our VA regional health network, and Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, our incredible Director of the Washington state VA, who have each crossed the mountains to be here.

“Tim McCarty, whose leadership on the Walla Walla Task Force helped make today possible.

“The Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, and the Nez Perce Tribe, who all played a critical role here.

“And I’d also like to give special recognition to someone who means so, so much to this community, and who’s going to be greatly missed now that he’s retiring,

“That, of course, is Mr. Benjamin Vegors, who has been the Chaplain here for about as long as any of us can remember. 

“And finally, I just want to thank a few others who have played a part in making today a reality.

“I’m sure I’m going to miss a few names, but, we simply would not be here today if not for our veterans like Don Schack, Lanny Myers, and especially Ron Fry, who worked with me to stand up to the VA and refused to back down.

“And we certainly wouldn’t be here without the incredible veterans community here in Walla Walla. Over the last decade:

“You packed listening sessions,

“You sat through commission meetings.

“You came to all the LAP meetings.

“You joined the task force.

“And you showed me at meetings and field hearings exactly what this community needed.

“I also want to thank Mayor Jerry Cummins, and the former Walla Walla City Manager, Duane Cole, for their leadership over so many years.

“Those two, along with countless others, left no stone unturned, and would go anywhere to talk about the need for this facility. 

“I remember in the midst of battling to save and expand this facility meeting Jerry and Duane just after they had gone to see VA Undersecretary Perlin back in 2006…and I remember how discouraged they were. 

“It felt impossible to continue fighting against a VA that seemed to want to starve this facility…but we all talked about the need to keep trying.

“We talked about the tens of thousands of veterans in this region who need the care that’s provided here. And Jerry, let’s just say it’s a good thing we stuck with it.

“Now, even though we didn’t always see eye to eye on the need to keep this facility open, there were also plenty of people who worked for the VA that helped make this possible, too

“And in particular, I’d like to thank Max Lewis, the former regional VA health network Director, Brian Westfield for everything you are doing here, and Sharon Helman, the former Director here at the Walla Walla and Spokane VA, who put a lot of work into this project.

“The same goes for John Lee and John King, Alfie’s predecessors.  We would not be here without their efforts.

“And the three VA Undersecretaries for Health that I worked with over the years: Jonathan Perlin, Michael Kussman, and Robert Petzel, who each probably dreaded hearing from all of us about Walla Walla but did, in the end help make this a reality.

“Finally, I want to thank all the members of the Local Advisory Panel, including Tim Williams from VA Puget Sound, Jim Kuntz from the Port, Barbara Clark with the City, Alice Bailey Thomsen with the Blue Mountain Veterans Coalition, and Leo Stewart with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla.

“And you know, as the daughter of a World War II veteran, I know firsthand what kind of challenges service men and women face when they return home.

“I remember how difficult it sometimes was for my dad, and how that impacted our entire family.

“And all of us here know that caring for veterans isn’t something you do with a couple of doctor’s visits – it’s a commitment that lasts a lifetime.

“And that’s really why I’m so proud to be here today, because the facility we’re here to open reflects the commitment  this country, this community, and all of you have made to our veterans.

“You know, I can remember back to 2003, just like it was yesterday, when this facility was first put on a list for closure by the CARES Commission.

“I immediately went to Secretary Principi at the VA and told him what this facility meant to our region…he told me he’d keep the veterans of Walla Walla in mind as the CARES Commission moved forward.

“But then, in February of 2004, the VA announced the Walla Walla VA would be closed and I probably heard from every single veteran in this part of the state.

“So I took that message straight to President Bush.

“I let the President and everyone at every level of the VA know what this facility meant to this region – and how wrong it would be to leave veterans without services here in Southeast Washington.

“And every single one of you was there to help.

“You testified in front of panels.

“You wrote to your elected officials.

“And when I held a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing here, you packed the room, you packed the hallways, and you even packed the overflow room – just to show how much this facility means.

“But we didn’t stop there. 

“Together, we then forced the VA and PricewaterhouseCoopers to come here and explain their decision to close this place, and you brought the kind of passion I was talking about in the halls of Congress.

"And when the VA kept throwing numbers and statistics at us, leaders like Jerry and Duane asked me to get federal funds so the task force had its own numbers and its own statistics.

“So I went back to Congress and helped get an earmark to make sure our veterans here in Walla Walla would be just as armed with facts and figures and plans to make their arguments as the VA, because we needed to be prepared to go toe to toe with them if we wanted to keep this facility in Walla Walla.

“And the report the task force was able to put forward really showed VA the path forward to invest in this facility.

“And it wasn’t long after that when the VA announced it would take Walla Walla off the closure list.

“But once again, we didn’t stop fighting for our veterans.

“We got to work convincing the VA that it wasn’t enough to just keep this facility open – we needed to invest in new buildings and new facilities.

“And all of you kept putting on the pressure.

“And when I told VA leaders like Secretary Peake they had to come visit, you were here to show them exactly what the needs were.

“In fact, it was right after Secretary Peake visited in 2008 when he announced that after years of fighting for every dollar we needed to keep the doors open – he would authorize $70 million for the state of the art facility we’re opening today.

“Together, we went from losing this entire facility and having vets drive to Spokane and Seattle for care to taking it off the closure list .

“And from there, we have fought to increase the funds to maintain and expand the current buildings, which includes building a new, 36-bed rehab unit that opened last year and now opening a 67,000 square foot state of the art health care facility to take care of our vets. 

“That is what I call a successful effort.

“And one thing was clear all along to keep us focused, in every conversation from here to Washington DC: no one was going to leave veterans in this community out to dry.

“We fought for every dollar to keep this place up and running, first to maintain whatever we could, and then to start investing in new facilities that will serve generations of veterans to come.

“Now – there’s always more work to be done.

“We need to continue investing in this facility.

“And people like Don and Mayor Cummins know we can’t lose our focus on making sure our veterans get the care they deserve.

“And to do that, building a state veterans home has to be one of our top priorities.

“This is something that Alfie and so many others are working on already, and I can’t wait for the day when I can come back to break ground on a veterans home just around the corner from here.

“Just like we worked together to build this clinic, we’re going to work together to finish what we’ve started and build the veterans home this community deserves.

“But today, we’re here to celebrate something that we’ve already achieved together.

“And while we’re on the subject of celebrations, I also want to recognize the work of Catholic Charities, which worked with the State of Washington to build 50 housing units for homeless veterans right on this campus.

“They’re going to break ground in just a few months, and I can think of no better example of this community coming together to support our veterans.

“And really – that’s what Walla Walla is about. 

“A community where people take care of each other.

“And just like Mayor Cummins, Duane, and I talked about all those years ago, this is a community where people don’t give up on what they believe in. 

“It’s a community that’s willing fight to make sure veterans get the care they need.

“So thank you again for having me here today, and for everything all of you have done to make this day possible.

“These are the kinds of days that make all our work worthwhile.

“Thank you.”