By Steve Doyle
Just over a year from now, Huntsville will have a VA clinic that matches its reputation as a magnet for military veterans.
Congressman Mo Brooks and other dignitaries gathered just west of downtown Thursday to break ground on a nearly $40 million U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic. Expected to open in the summer of 2015, it will replace two smaller VA-operated medical facilities on Governors Drive in Huntsville and Madison Boulevard in Madison.
Crews have already begun grading the property near Clearview Cancer Institute and Butler High School.
"Everything we are doing here is about improving the care and services that we provide to you, our American heroes," Birmingham VA Medical Center Director Thomas C. Smith III told a gathering of veterans at Thursday's ceremony.
Smith said VA officials began scouting for clinic sites in Huntsville about five years ago because of rapid growth in North Alabama's veteran population.
The 47,800-square-foot clinic will offer primary care, mental health, audiology, optometry and radiology services, plus an on-site pharmacy.
It will also showcase VA's "Telehealth" program - video hookups that will allow veterans in Huntsville to be seen remotely by medical specialists in other cities and states.
John Cooper, a Navy veteran and Patriot Guard member who attended the groundbreaking, said friends who now have to drive to Birmingham for certain types of care will now be able to get almost everything they need in Huntsville.
"It means a lot to me that Huntsville is finally getting something like this," said Cooper. "We've needed it for a long time."
Veterans who require cardiac, orthopedic and other types of specialized care will continue to be referred to the Birmingham VA Medical Center.
Brooks said his 91-year-old father is among the veterans that the new clinic is designed to serve. A World War II Army combat engineer under Gen. George Patton, he was injured during a rowdy May 8, 1945, "VE Day" celebration in Germany when a friend accidentally fired a Luger pistol.
The bullet is still lodged near his father's spine, said Brooks.
"This facility will do so much good for so many of our men and women who have served our country so nobly," he said. "It is our duty to those who have given so much, to make sure that they have access to affordable health care and the benefits they have earned."
The clinic is being built by Birmingham-based Johnson Development on VA-owned land at the intersection of Markaview Road and Russell Hill Drive. Johnson Development will cover all construction costs; the VA has promised lease the building for a minimum of 20 years.