By Mollie MillerApril 2, 2008
Perched on a seat at the front of a Lyster Army Health Clinic conference room Friday, Wilbur Sullivant gazed at the large crowd of senior government officials, Veterans Affairs leaders, Fort Rucker Soldiers and Wiregrass veterans who packed the room and his face lit up like he had just won the lottery.
In a way, Sullivant had.
More than two years ago, Sullivant, commander of Ozark's Disabled American Veterans Chapter 94, took a gamble that Lyster's commander, Col. Michael Kaminiski, would help him make a dream come true for Wiregrass veterans. Sullivant had heard the complaints of local veterans who were driving hundreds of miles every year to receive health care because the closest VA Clinics able to accept new patients were in Montgomery or Tuskegee. Local veterans wanted a clinic in the Wiregrass and Sullivant wanted Kaminski help make that clinic a reality.
"This gentleman came to me and said 'sir, let me buy you lunch,'" Kaminski said of the day Sullivant first approached him with the idea for opening a VA Clinic at Lyster. "So I go to lunch ... and, as we have lunch, he tells me we have a problem down here taking care of our veterans."
Friday, after nearly three years of hard work, Sullivant's gamble paid off as Kaminiski joined VA officials to unveil the new VA Wiregrass Outpatient Clinic at Lyster.
"Sullivant was the catalyst for this clinic," Kaminiski said.
The new clinic is located in what used to be the Aviation Medicine Clinic on the east side of Lyster. The 17-room facility can house up to eight doctors and, in the near future, will provide outpatient care for nearly 7,000 patients.
"This clinic is going to take care of our Wiregrass veterans," Dr. Robert Ratliff, interim director, Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said. "Now, we can't get them all in next week (but) give us time and we'll get every one of the (local) veterans taken care of here."
Ratliff, who was serving as the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System Director in 2006 when the idea of a VA Clinic at Lyster was first presented to him, said, in the beginning, he didn't think the concept would ever come to fruition.
"(We) came down in December 2006 to break the news to (Kaminski) and the Lyster team that the clinic just wouldn't work," Ratliff said. "Kaminski just wouldn't take 'no' for an answer (and) we are here today because of Col. Kaminski - he made this thing work."
Kaminski admitted the road to the new clinic has been filled with challenges, but said a huge team, including a group of volunteer Soldiers and civilians who painted the new clinic when no one else would, made the clinic a reality.
"This has been a lot of hard work but I realized one thing - you can cut through red tape. You can cut through the bureaucracy. You can make things happen," Kaminski said. "This is all about taking care of our veterans."
Shirley Bealer, Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System Acting Director, said the opening of the VA Clinic at Lyster helps her team deliver on the three promises they have made to every veteran: to provide care second to none, to maintain and expand services and to ensure that every veteran is personally satisfied with their care.
"Today is a proud moment for us in the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System," Bealer said. "By opening our new clinic here in the Wiregrass, we not only expand and strengthen our professional relationship with our medical colleagues here at Fort Rucker but also deliver on our promises to our veterans."
Congressman Terry Everett, R-Rehobeth, said the opening of the new clinic makes him "proud" of the way the nation is taking care of its veterans.
"This facility is going to offer many services at a location convenient to many of our veterans," he said.
The future appears bright for the new clinic and the partnership between the VA and Lyster.
Ratliff said in the coming years, the clinic will expand to provide more specialty services within the Fort Rucker location. An ongoing $2.9 million construction project on Lyster's second floor will eventually allow the VA Clinic to expand to a 21,000-square-foot facility that will serve 14,000 patients.
"I am going to have plenty of room to do all the primary care for every veteran down here," Ratliff said. "Give us a little time - we'll get the services you need here and then we'll start expanding those services."
Kaminski said he welcomes the VA partnership and all that it will do to enhance the Lyster community.
"We are going to take care of these veterans (and) everyone who has or is currently serving their country," Kaminski said. "This is a win-win situation for everyone."
Sullivant was the VA Clinic's first patient March 19 and said he was very happy with the service and with not having to drive a long distance to receive his care.
"I knew this clinic was going to happen," Sullivant said, smiling. "This is just great."