High-ranking U.S. Marine Corps official tours soon-to-open VA facility

This month the newly built VA medical facility in North Las Vegas is scheduled to open for business. In mid-June a preview tour was conducted for Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the highest-ranking enlisted man in the U.S. Marine Corps. Stationed in Washington, D.C., Battaglia travels the country in his multifaceted roles as a Marine, as an adviser to military leaders and as a liaison to the other armed services. Leading the tour was John Bright, who heads the local VA heath care system.

"I am a Marine by service, but yet I represent all services," Battaglia told a select group of local veterans and others who welcomed him and carried on a discussion about VA services. "My boss is the chairman (of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and I also advise the Secretary of Defense as well. We're very excited about this facility opening up, and while I am not a bona fide member of the Veterans Administration, I feel that I am, because of the service members that I have now, (that I will be) turning over to you. And I know you have their best interests at heart."

One of his goals is to visit the older VA facilities as well as the more recent ones and try to learn what works and what requires improvement.

"Across the country we visited VA facilities ... I really hope this will become the modern facility that other states will look at," Battaglia said.

He has visited VA outreach clinics and homeless centers and other VA locations and has taken an interest in all of those programs. He praised VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and his work in helping to smooth the transition for soldiers who are on active duty to becoming civilian veterans. "I have really seen the relationship between the VA and the Department of Defense grow, and that will make life easier," he said.

Discussing the VA, American Legion leader Jack Ford told Battaglia, "We have fantastic management, and we have all along." He said veterans are fortunate that the director who served before Bright, John Hempel, was also top-drawer. "That's the big success we have here in Las Vegas. We don't have the problems" that some other VA regions have reportedly experienced, said Ford, who added that many of the local civilian medical services are not up to par with what the VA offers.

James McCawley of the Catholic War Veterans praised the VA heath care system. "They saved my life twice," he said.

It was pointed out by the group that ground has been broken for a new VA facility in New Orleans, and Battaglia said the responsible parties will use the experience of building the Las Vegas facility when working on the Louisiana project. One of the major advantages he said he has found around the country is that the VA offers good parking for patients and visitors.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "It really changed the way folks felt about coming in."

Steve Gibbs, a leader with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the relationship between the VA and the DoD "is going great." Battaglia added, "We just have to let the process change. It's a World War II system that just can't operate in today's world. So what we've done is we've integrated the medical evaluation process."

He said the process will streamline so it doesn't take approximately 400 days to transfer medical and other files from DoD to VA. "We're beating it down, but we'll get there," he said.

Joe Odya of the AMVETS brought up military suicides. He suggested that combat veterans not be discharged until they are given mental evaluations.

Battaglia said, "The numbers, I'm not proud to say, continue to climb. We haven't cracked the code. We as military leaders get paid to solve the problems, and this is one we can't seem to solve. We've got to reduce it; we just have to. No service is immune to it. The Army is the largest and has the most. One of my main efforts is to reduce suicides in the military."

A TIME magazine cover story noted that on average, one service member commits suicide each day, and more U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan war.

Battgalia told the local group, "Would you be surprised if I told you that over half of the suicides we have now is from troops that have never deployed?" The local veterans were surprised at the statistic.

The Marine sergeant continued, "They seem to process whatever adversity they are going through in a way that allows suicide to be some course of action in their decision-making. And you all didn't have that in your upbringing. You dealt with it in other ways, and suicide wasn't an option." He said he continues to work on the problem and seeks ideas to break down the barriers and greatly reduce the number of service people who see suicide as an answer.

After the discussion, the group was given a brief tour of the medical facility, which as of press time had yet to be given a formal name. VA Public Information Officer David Martinez said that for the time being, it's being referred to as the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.

VA employee Steve Stern conducted the tour and told the group that the facility was already being slated for expansion. Remodeling is planned for a 15,000-square-foot women's health center on the third floor, and an additional 20,000 square feet are planned for the emergency department. Plus, an administration building and an education building are scheduled to be added.

Stern said, "Within three months of the original opening date we came in $100 million under budget." So there is money on hand to accomplish the additional space, and there is "still money on the table," Stern reported. He added that often the public says the federal government cannot open "on time and under budget." He proved them wrong in this case.

Stern foresees when thousands of people will again be moving to Southern Nevada each month as they did before the current recession, and he said the facility is ready to add more beds and more personnel. Walls are already targeted to be taken out to expand for new rooms or buildings. "Our goal here for this was a 100-year facility that will adapt and change as we need it to," he said. "I think we got pretty close."

Journalist and author Chuck N. Baker is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He is the managing editor of Nevada's Veterans Reporter newspaper and the host of the "Veterans Reporter Radio Show" on KLAV (1230 AM) from 8-9 p.m. Thursdays and the "Veterans Reporter News" at 2:30 a.m. Fridays on VEGAStv KTUD-Cable 14).