During a congressional hearing in Hot Springs today, military veterans and supporters urged Congress to save the VA medical facility in the southern Black Hills town.
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem organized the field hearing and brought in Florida Congressmen Jeff Miller and Gus Bilirakis, the chairman and vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Also attending was Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith.
The first person to address the House members this morning was Bryan Brewer, best known recently for his duties as president of the Oglala Lakota Tribe in Pine Ridge. But today Brewer spoke as a disabled Vietnam combat veteran for veterans throughout the region, especially those with tribal affiliations in western South Dakota.
"We're really hoping Washington, D.C. Will listen to our concerns for all veterans in western South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming," Brewer said prior to the hearing. "So I'm hear to speak for the veterans of the reservations, Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, Rosebud, who, most of our people use this facility here."
They use it, love it and fear they will lose it in a controversial restructuring proposed almost three years ago by the Veterans Administration. It has been a fight every since, with local supporters of the VA facility battling what they believe is an unfair effort to take away a valued part of veteran's care and the community.
Brewer says it give him and other veterans exactly what they need.
"We come here, we get good service and they meet our needs," Brewer said.
The location of the VA medical center in the southern Black Hills community knows for its warm-water springs is an essential part of the treatment, recovery and healing that veterans deserve, Brewer said.
"Hot Springs has been a healing place for the Lakota people for thousands of years. We've come here because of the hot springs, the water, the warm water," Brewer said. "And so Hot springs has always been a healing place for us. And now with the veterans, it's a healing place also."
At a time when VA health care is being questioned elsewhere, it is being praised by those who believe in the service provided in Hot Springs. State American Legion Commander Tim Jurgens of Milbank said Hot Springs services are praised.
"So that's what we hear day in and day out, about the wonderful care here in Hot Springs," Tim Jurgens of Milbank, American Legion commander for South Dakota said.
The initial restructuring plan would close most of the Hot Springs VA medical center, transfer some services to veterans to private health providers and facilities and add VA facilities in Rapid City, a larger population center with many resident veterans.
But Jurgens, who also offered testimony during the field hearing, said closing the VA health center in Hot Springs would leave a void that couldn't easily be filled elsewhere.
"It would burden the veterans that live in this area to travel long distances, which would not only be clostly but a great burden on them," Jurgens said. "It would really be a hardship for some of them."