As the parade wended its way through the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital to celebrate Veterans Day, Edward Cutolo, the hospital’s chief of staff, talked about how things are changing at one of the nation’s busiest VA medical facilities.
With the war in Iraq over, the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close and combat operations scheduled to end there by next year, the hospital will be shifting gears, but not slowing down, said Cutolo.
“This is a big year for us, with the activation of the new polytrauma center being the big one,” he said over the sounds of patriotic music blaring from marching bands. With 56 rehabilitation beds, the new center, scheduled to open sometime around March, will be “a state of the world facility,” said Cutolo. Ground broke on the roughly $80 million project, which includes the new six-story garage, in June 2010.
Around the same time, the hospital is also set to open a 100,000-square-foot primary care annex at the intersection of Interstate 75 and Fletcher Avenue.
“All our primary care teams will be there,” said Cutolo. “The women’s center will be there, and the dental clinic too. The move will take about 600 to 800 patients a day out of the main building, which will further help with the decompression and help with parking.”
In turn, that will enable the hospital to move things around inside the main building, increasing space for speciality care, said Cutolo.
“With the wars winding down, we are going to shift our focus,” said Cutolo. “There are always going to be traumatic brain injury in the military and we’ve had the mission here at the VA since 1993,” he said. “There are stateside injuries, training injuries, then special operations with potential injuries there.”
But now, in addition to so much focus on acute care, the hospital is going to put more emphasis on “prep teams,” an intensive, month-long in-patient evaluation program, Cutolo said. The prep teams will work with veterans who suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
“We are really going to shift our focus to those folks,” said Cutolo.
The numbers, he said, are huge.
Cutolo said that more than 200,000 post 9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD and about 80,000 have traumatic brain injury, based on studies of the more than 1 million men and women deployed during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The long-term care for these men and women “is going to be a major challenge,” said Cutolo, compounded by the need to ensure that care and service is not diminished for veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts that took place before 9/11.
The hospital’s 6th annual veterans day parade attracted scores of those veterans.
Robert Heddaeus was one.
In June of 1944, he was an 18-year-old private with the 35th Division who landed in France a week after D-Day. About a month later, as his division was about 15 miles outside of Paris, he was on a nighttime patrol that came across two German soldiers who he thought were going to surrender.
“But they didn’t,” said Heddaeus, now 88. “They opened up and I was shot in the shoulder.”
But Heddaeus, who now lives at the Astor Gardens retirement home, didn’t have much time to recover. He was patched up and shipped off again, serving as a military police officer in France.
To him, the parade and celebration were all about memories.
“This is a day of remembrance,” he said. “This is a time to remember that every day was a nightmare.”
For Larry Binns, a chief petty officer with SEAL Team 2 during the Vietnam War, Veterans Day was all about pride.
“There were some pretty tough memories,” said Binns, now 66, who was wearing his Navy SEAL veteran baseball cap with an American flag sticking out of the strap on the back. “We did a lot of covert work. I was a sniper. I am proud of what we did,”
That pride extends to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, said the parade’s keynote speaker, Army Maj. Gen. Aundre Piggee, director of logistics for U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
“Over the last decade, more than 5 million men and women have worn the uniform of the United Stars armed services,” said Piggee. “Of these, 3 million stepped forward after the attack on 9/11, knowing full well that they could be sent into harm’s way and in that time they served in some of the world’s most dangerous locations.”
Their service, said Piggee, whose father served under Gen. Patton in the storied Red Ball Express, delivering fuel and ammo as the Third Army raced across Europe, “has been self-sacrificing and generous. Their accomplishments, nothing less than extraordinary. Today’s service members are an average 27 years of age. These young men and women have shattered that false myth of their generation’s apathy.”
Piggee, who is overseeing the drawdown of billions of dollars of equipment from Afghanistan, said that these veterans “came of age in an era when so many institutions failed to live up to their responsibilities but they chose to serve a cause greater then themselves. They saw the country threatened. They signed up to confront that threat. They felt the tug and they answered the call and they said, ‘let’s go. Send me,’ and they earned their place among the greatest generations.”