HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The Department of Veterans Affairs firmly took a stand on the front line of health care for the area's veterans on April 17 when its leadership was joined by federal, state and local officials to break ground for a $39.5 million Huntsville Outpatient Clinic.

The new clinic, set to open in mid-2015, will be a 47,800-square-foot state of the art facility providing primary health care and mental health services. It will also provide audiology, optometry and radiology services, a limited pharmacy and a women's clinic.

The audience at the groundbreaking ceremony included representatives from Team Redstone, local elected officials and business leaders, employees from the Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center and its community-based outpatient clinics in Huntsville and Madison, representatives of several local veterans groups and families. Command Sgt. Maj. James Sims of the Army Materiel Command and several other Soldiers were in the audience. The Brass Quintet from the Army Materiel Command Band performed patriotic music for the ceremony.

"A grateful nation remembers your service and sacrifice," said Robert Mays, chairman of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the ceremony.

The Huntsville Outpatient Clinic, located just off I-565 and west of downtown Huntsville at 500 Markaview Road near Butler High School, will combine the services now being provided at the existing Huntsville Community Based Outpatient Clinic at 301 Governors Drive in the Huntsville Hospital medical complex, and the Decatur/Madison Community Based Outpatient Clinic at 8075 Madison Blvd., Madison. When its door opens, the new clinic and its 40 employees will provide service to a combined customer base of 15,000 veterans with room for expansion in both its customers and its services.

"This new facility puts the (employees at the two community-based outpatient clinics) on the front lines of VA health care," Mays said. "When this new facility opens, the excellent care you give our veterans is going to flourish. … It warms our hearts to know our veterans are going to be so well taken care of. … This will be a place of service, a place where veterans will find comfort and compassion to heal the mind, body and spirit."

U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, guest speaker at the ceremony, talked about the spirit of the nation's veterans through history, beginning with the Revolutionary War, saying, "that kind of courage and dedication … that kind of spirit gave birth to this nation and that kind of spirit is what we see in our veterans today."

It is appropriate, he said, for a nation that is grateful for the service and sacrifice of its veterans to provide them with the best possible health care and health care facilities.

"We owe a debt of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy because of the sacrifices of these veterans. … This facility helps you understand how much we appreciate what you've done for America," Brooks said.

In Alabama, there are 405,000 veterans. Of those, more than 62,000 reside in North Alabama, said Thomas Smith, director of the Birmingham VA Medical Center. Currently, the Huntsville CBOC serves 7,500 patients and the Decatur/Madison CBOC serves 5,500 patients. The new combined clinic will open with a combined customer base of 13,000 patients.

Although those 13,000 patients have been able to get primary care and mental health services at the Huntsville and Decatur/Madison CBOCs, the services at the new Huntsville Outpatient Clinic will provide access to expanded and specialty care that will require fewer trips to the Birmingham VA.

"We want to make sure they have access to affordable health care and benefits," Brooks said. "We need to give them more timely and more convenient care."

The Birmingham VA Medical Center network, which currently includes nine community based outpatient clinics providing service for 24 North Alabama counties, employs 2,000 health care professionals who "provide high quality care every day. This new facility is a move toward the future for health care for veterans in the Huntsville area," Smith said.

Looking out at the veterans that filled the audience under the ceremonial tent, Smith said, "You are the ones we're doing this for. This is all about you and your families. This is about improving the care and service we provide to you, our American heroes."

The VA Huntsville Outpatient Clinic has been in the planning stages for more than five years. Although it is replacing the two community-based outpatient clinics, the Huntsville Outpatient Clinic will provide more services -- including audiology (now only offered locally by the Decatur/Madison CBOC), optometry (now only offered by the Huntsville CBOC), radiology, pharmacy and a women's clinic -- and will no longer be considered a community-based outpatient clinic because of its expanded customer base and services. Those services will continue to grow as the clinic's customer base and veteran health needs expand.

"The apparent rapid growth of veterans in this area made this a logical progression," Smith said. "Today is truly a milestone that we've been looking forward to for some time. We need this facility to continue to serve the fastest growing veteran population in the state."

Besides being a state-of-the-art facility, the new outpatient clinic will also feature something lacking at its two local community-based outpatient clinics -- plenty of parking. The new facility will have 393 parking spaces.

"We are incredibly excited about this new clinic," Smith said.

In addition, the new facility will allow the VA to expand its Telehealth program, where a patient and technician located at one of the VA's clinics can communicate via telecommunications with a specialty doctor at its Birmingham medical center. The arrangement is used for standard rechecks or appointments, and is available at the VA's CBOCs.

The VA will also continue to rely on health care consultants and other medical partners in the Huntsville area to provide specialty health care services to its veterans.

"We have excellent and great partnerships with services in this area," Smith said.

The VA has also benefited from partnerships with local chapters of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars, and with support organizations such as Still Serving Veterans.

"You have helped to make this over-five-year vision a reality," Smith said. "You have joined us in working tirelessly behind the scenes to bring this day to fruition."

Madison County Commission chairman Dale Strong said he is proud to see the VA "bring health care more conveniently located to veterans in this region."

The Huntsville metro area is the second largest in the state, with 343,000 people. He mentioned that the network of health care providers in the area includes both Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center, which accept Tricare patients.

Strong thanked Brooks along with Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions for supporting the new VA clinic.

"Without that commitment we could not accomplish this," he said.

Retired Col. John Hamilton, who, as Huntsville's city administrator, represented mayor Tommy Battle at the groundbreaking, said the new clinic will have an impact on the entire area.

"This area has always valued our military service. … The community partnerships grow expeditiously. We're ready to grow the care of our veterans through this facility," he said.

Retired Lt. Col. Troy Trulock, Madison's mayor, said that, as a combat veteran, he and his family decided to retire in the area because "it is a great community for our veterans, and this will be a great new facility for our veterans."

Many veterans in the audience expressed their hope for the new facility, saying it's been long in coming.

"This is what we needed. It took them long enough. But they did it," World War II and Korean War veteran James Della Silva said.

"I'm very happy to see it is finally coming to fruition," said Nancy Eason, a Navy combat medic veteran and past commander of Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 26. "We won't have to drive to Birmingham as much to go to the VA, and it will have an area designated for women's health."
Amy Barrow, the women's health program manager for the Birmingham VA Medical Center, said one of the state's highest populations of female veterans is in the Huntsville/Madison area.

"A lot of the care based here will be decided on need. We will have a women's clinic with procedure rooms, but what all procedures we provide will be determined on the need and growth in the customer base," Barrow said.

Several veterans expressed confidence that the new clinic is a step in the right direction for VA health care in the area.

"This is really a great day for the veterans of North Alabama," veteran Leonard Robinson of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart said. "This will be much more convenient for veterans in the area. It will be a real blessing for us here in North Alabama."

As in the words prayed by Team Redstone chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Boulware of the Aviation and Missile Command, the new clinic represents "health, healing and hope for our veterans."