At a press conference Saturday, March 19, in front of the Ulster County office building, Gavin Walters, Air-Force veteran and head of the non-profit Veterans Bridging Communities, choked back tears. Among the granite cenotaphs, the tall black slabs upon which the names of fallen soldiers are etched, politicians and their helpers stood witness behind Walters.
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan was there, himself a West Point graduate and combat veteran in Iraq. And Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, who served four years in the Marines and 18 more in the Marine Reserves, was in attendance.
Speaking into a microphone, Walters was alone with his pain while he recalled the dark thoughts that can come to a soldier newly returned to the civilian life unsure where to turn for help.
“My life was saved because I started to go to the VA,” Walters said. “Each one of us actually going to the VA and creating relationships, having support speaking to somebody that you don’t even know, and having a conversation through the whole day because they’re supporting you. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the relationship and family that we’ve all gathered and developed from there. It’s about us.”
Five days earlier, word had been run down the flagpole by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, placing the largest VA facility in the Hudson Valley on the chopping block. Not permanently, of course but for a length of time undetermined.
The recommended closure of the Castle Point campus in Wappingers Falls, to which Walters expressed his allegiance, was just one of the casualties of the hundreds-pages-long report, known as an “asset and infrastructure review.” It calls for a massive nationwide restructuring of the federal VA footprint of hospitals, healthcare facilities and clinics.
According to county exec Ryan, more than 13,000 Ulster County veterans and their families are already stuck in a healthcare desert, midway between the Albany VA and the facilities at Castle Point.
“We cannot and we will not tolerate any reduction in services to our veterans,” said a defiant Ryan. “And the fact that we’re having to be in a defensive position at all and say, we just want to save what we have, is also unacceptable. To my fellow veterans, [the findings in] this report are a slap in the face. And it feels like the VA is turning their backs on us at the time that we desperately need them. This approach might make sense financially to bureaucrats sitting somewhere in an office, but it is morally bankrupt.”
Malia Dumont is an Afghanistan veteran, American Legion member, and Army Reserve officer who chairs Congressman Antonio Delgado’s veterans advisory committee.
“I want to talk briefly about a community, of women veterans,” Dumont said. “There aren’t that many places in the state of New York where women veterans can get gynecological care and cancer care. And women veterans are among the fastest-growing groups of veterans, especially from the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans’ generation. And those of us who were in those conflicts, we’re just coming of the age where we have to go get our regular mammograms. The facility they’re taking out has one of the few VA-funded mammography facilities in the entire state. So they’re just taking it away. Now they’re supposed to go to the Bronx, they’re supposed to go to Albany. That’s not possible for a lot of women veterans. And it’s a travesty.”
The report proposes to replace the VA facility with an outpatient clinic.
“They specifically claim on Page 66 [that] current inpatient medical and urgent-care demand at Castle Point could be absorbed by ‘community partners,’ meaning other hospitals. That is laughable. That is laughable, because right now we are fighting with our main hospital in Ulster County, who has pulled out all of our mental-health and detox beds, 60 of them, and laid off 40-plus senior staff at the height of a pandemic. So to assume and trust that those partners are going to fill a gap is absolutely ridiculous.”
A group of older veterans standing off from the gathered speakers are listening. They are wearing ballcaps embroidered with the indentifying insignia, branches served, and what wars they fought in. One wears the overseas cap of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), olive green with yellow piping and a Maltese cross.
When sheriff Juan Figueroa steps forward to the microphone, one of the vets sporting a handsome paunch steps forward and calls out: “Semper Fi!”
Whether he was a fellow Marine or a heckler from the Army is hard to know. Figueroa, wearing his wide-brimmed state-trooper-like hat firmly on his head, doesn’t shout back. But when he speaks into the microphone, his voice sounds hoarse.
“I take this very personal [sic] as someone who at the age of 18 signed my life away to protect my great nation, our great nation, and that these services are going to be taken away from our fellow veterans in the Hudson Valley,” said Figueroa. “A lot of us served. A lot of us do a lot for our country. And it’s time that we are not forgotten here.”
Ryan says that not just preserving and saving services but also enhancing and further investing in veterans is something “we all know that we talk about. And now we need to put our money where our mouth is.”
March 19 marks the first rallying cry, in county exec Ryan’s words, in the effort to resist the dismantling of the Castle Point VA facility. It is a shot across the bow of the VA report’s recommendations.