‘The best thing that’s ever happened’: Local veterans celebrate news of Leeds VA staying open

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, part of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, is shown in March. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2022 12:18:24 PM
Modified: 6/30/2022 12:18:23 PM

Local military veterans and their advocates breathed a sigh of relief Monday when news broke that Northampton’s Veterans Affairs medical center will not close and veterans will not have to drive to Vermont or Connecticut to receive the services they need.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by Jon Tester, D-Montana, chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, announced plans to eliminate the federal Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, which was tasked with reviewing the VA’s list of recommended closures. The list included the 105-acre VA campus in Leeds, a village of Northampton. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the VA MISSION Act, which required the VA to draft a list of recommendations to “modernize” its medical facilities and health care delivery. That had meant the privatization of some services and the closure of three facilities: those in Northampton, Chillicothe, Ohio and Brooklyn, New York.

“I would like to say we are pleased a bipartisan group of elected officials stepped forward to halt the A.I.R. Commission and its faulted suggestions,” Timothy Niejadlik, veteran U.S. Army officer and director of the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District, said in an emailed statement. “We do hope veterans and their families continue to remain vigilant in protecting our local VA facilities as we move forward.”

Niejadlik, an Iraq War veteran and Bronze Star recipient, said he and his fellow veterans are pleased with this news, but said they must stay vigilant against a closure “because it may rear its ugly head again in the future.” He said that though modernizing facilities is a great idea, “we just don’t want to close facilities to meet those needs.”

The Edward P. Boland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers dozens of services. More information is available at bit.ly/3btZ3yp. In a statement, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said at least 2,000 Franklin County veterans receive health care at the Leeds location. She said many outside providers are not accepting new patients, or do not accept VA Health Care.

“It is a relief that the voices of our local veterans and their supporters were heard,” she said. “The Leeds VA Medical Center provides vital care to veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country. Plans to close the center were just plain wrong.”

Though he was unaware of the news until reached by phone on Tuesday, Walter White, a U.S. Army veteran and past commander of Orange American Legion Post 172, echoed Wedegartner and Niejadlik’s enthusiasm.

“I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened,” he said in a phone interview. “They take care of a lot of veterans at that VA, and why should they have to go to Springfield, Connecticut or New York or whatever? That’s totally stupid.”

White, 74, said he has been visiting the Leeds facility “ever since Christ was a child.” He has a lot of veteran friends who use the Leeds location and he knows they’re relieved to be able to stay closer to home for their care.

“I think it would have been a total disaster,” he said about a Leeds closure, referring to the logistics involved and the high price of gas. “I wouldn’t have traveled that far. I would have gone to White River Junction (in Vermont).”

White served in the Army from 1965 to 1972, notching two years in Korea and two in Vietnam.

Marvin Shedd, chairman of the Bernardston Veterans Memorial Committee, said he was pleased with the government’s decision, as a closure would have had a negative impact on local veterans.

“They were going to have to travel well outside what was conceivable for most of them,” he said. “So it’s a very good move in my opinion and I think the majority of veterans agents in the Valley feel the same way.

“Leeds is so valuable to these local folks,” he added.

Similarly, Al Cummings, an Army veteran who chairs the Montague Soldiers Memorial Committee, said he was thrilled to learn he can keep going to the Leeds facility.

“I was ecstatic,” he said with a laugh. “Other than that, we would have gone to White River Junction or West Haven, Connecticut.”

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