This year, the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System celebrated 80 years of providing exceptional health care to the men and women who so honorably served our nation.
On paper, we recognize 1933 as our first year of operation; however, Bay Pines has a storied history that started several years before the doors opened to serve veterans.
It all began with a movement by U.S. Sen. Duncan Fletcher on Jan. 5, 1929, when a bill introduced in the Senate authorized the construction of a new branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In Pinellas County, a campaign immediately began to rally support for construction in the area, namely at the Seminole Point site (although for some time Clearwater was also in the running). Seminole Point, now known as Bay Pines, was chosen as the site on May 26, 1931 - an event newspapers called the "glorious news" that will "bring Saint Petersburg back."
When the home officially opened and treated its first patient (Charles Boone, the state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars), there were 250 employees on duty and facilities capable of providing health care services to 159 Veterans.
Along with the growth of the primary facility at Bay Pines, our health care system expanded exponentially with the addition of outpatient clinics across Southwest Florida - bringing health care closer to where veterans live. The first was Fort Myers in 1979 (now the Lee County VA Healthcare Center), followed by St. Petersburg in 1991, Sarasota in 1997, Bradenton, Naples and Port Charlotte in 2000, Palm Harbor in 2001 and Sebring in 2002.
Since 1933 what started as a National Soldiers Home capable of serving 159 veterans has now become a large, complex VA health care system that provides the full spectrum of state-of-the-art health care services to more than 100,000 veterans across a 10-county area in Southwest Florida. More than 3,500 dedicated employees, many of them veterans, come to work every day to care for our nation's heroes at the fourth-busiest VA health care system in the country.
I would like to personally thank the many generations of Bay Pines employees, volunteers, the Tampa Bay area community and, most importantly, veterans and their families for making the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System what it is today.
Suzanne M. Klinker
The writer is director of the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System.