By Staff Sgt. Felix FimbresJanuary 27, 2012
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- As the nation begins to draw down its forces, more and more veterans will be entering the Department of Veterans Affairs health system.
Since Jan. 25, veterans in Southern California have had access to a new, state-of-the-art medical facility, named after a civil affairs Soldier who was also, fittingly, a doctor of optometry.
After Dr. (Maj.) Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., completed his active duty service in 1999, he became an Army Reserve officer with the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion. In civilian life, Soltes was clinical director at the Irvine Vision Institute, a refractive surgery specialty center in Irvine, Calif.
In 2004, Soltes was called upon to help rebuild the medical infrastructure in Mosul, Iraq, as the 426th's public health officer. He led a team that included Capt. Ivan Hong, who was with Soltes when their convoy was attacked.
"We did a lot of public health missions in Mosul to help the people," Hong said, remembering the day of the IED attack that claimed Soltes' life. "He was a great guy and a great leader; just thinking about him makes me a little emotional."
Maj. Gregory Ulma deployed with Soltes and had the unenviable task of replacing him.
"I had to replace his position in the public health team and it was then I discovered how much work he had done and what big shoes I had to fill," Ulma said. "He was one of the finest human beings and a good friend to all who were around him."
Soltes' son, Ryan, now 17, was just 10 years old when he lost his father.
"Losing him impacted me greatly," Ryan said. "Everyday things that you wouldn't think of, simple questions that you would ask him, everything that your dad would bestow on you, just wasn't there. There was a big part of my life missing."
Ryan was one of more than 700 people who showed up to the building dedication, more than event organizers had expected.
"I think it signifies him," Ryan said. "He wanted to help everyone. He lived for that; he wasn't doing it because someone asked him to do it.
"I think that the hospital just represents him and what he did his whole life," he added.
The Maj. Charles R. Soltes Jr. Blind Rehabilitation Center was part of a 30-month construction project at the Long Beach VA Healthcare System, including seven new buildings housing a number of different programs, including pharmacy, emergency medicine, primary care, employee education system, and human resources.
Thomas E. Lasser, a retired lieutenant colonel and member of the greater Los Angeles United Service Organization board of directors, said this facility was a huge upgrade and will help fill the need the area is beginning to see as the U.S. draws down its forces.
"A lot of the VA health system is old, post-World War II," Lasser said. "There is not only an aging veteran population, but we've created a lot of new veterans in the past ten years, instead of the veteran population getting smaller it's getting bigger. The facilities have to keep up with the need, and this facility is one of the most modern on the West Coast."