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Veterans Win Fight to Save Gymnasium

The Valley

Retrofitting: Work will begin Tuesday on a $2-million project at North Hills VA facility, following three-year lobbying effort.

July 01, 2002|KARIMA A. HAYNES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly every morning for a decade, 79-year-old Steven T. Palmer worked out the kinks in the gym and pool at Sepulveda Ambulatory Care and Nursing Home.

But in 1999, the Department of Veterans Affairs shuttered the North Hills facility in response to a report on damage caused by the Northridge earthquake.

The decision outraged Palmer, a World War II Navy veteran, who then mustered other veterans who used the facility to push the VA to repair it.

"That swimming pool and gym were my life," said Palmer of Panorama City. "It kept me active--and out of the nursing home."

So Tuesday, when construction workers officially break ground, Palmer and his group will celebrate their victory in the battle to keep the gymnasium alive.

As a result of their three-year lobbying effort, Congress appropriated $2 million for an earthquake retrofit project for the gymnasium. Crews will demolish and rebuild inside walls, showers, locker rooms, offices, the gym floor and sections of the foundation, said Ed Amador, engineer and project manager.

The swimming pool, however, will remain closed, and the veterans will have to make do with an existing therapy pool in a nearby building.

The retrofit project is expected to take a year to complete.

Reps. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), who were instrumental in securing federal funding for the project, are expected to attend the groundbreaking ceremony, scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

The project comes at a time when veterans say their benefits are slowly being eroded.

A Veterans Affairs official announced in March that the department is considering a plan to move rare and expensive patient diagnostic procedures from North Hills to its West Los Angeles facility as a cost-saving measure.

Agency officials argue that the potential changes are necessary because annual federal appropriations have not kept pace with the rising number of veterans seeking care.

Although a final decision has not been made, those who rely on the clinic for medical and counseling services say the move could portend the closure of the North Hills facility, which primarily serves veterans in the San Fernando Valley and other parts of northern Los Angeles County.

"The opening of the gym is a small bit of tokenism because we are [losing] everything else," Palmer said. Even so, former Air Force Sgt. David E. Thomas said the gym's reopening will go a long way toward healing veterans' physical and emotional wounds.

"A lot of guys--especially those with physical problems or drug and alcohol problems--felt like the gym was their only way to connect with society," said Thomas, a 44-year-old computer programmer from Encino. "When that gym closed, they suffered greatly."

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