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Veterans lobby for VA hospital in old Harriman facility

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By Cindy Simpson

A veterans hospital in Harriman would be a tremendous benefit for area veterans who now travel about two and a half hours for treatments they cannot get at local VA clinics.

That is why veteran Tommy True would like to see Roane Medical Center’s current location be turned into a veterans hospital once the facilities’ operations are moved to the new Midtown facility under construction by Covenant Health.

“The whole hospital itself is in excellent shape,” True said, adding that a VA hospital could benefit thousands of area veterans.

“There are over 6,000 veterans in Roane County alone,” he said. “Some have to go to Murfreesboro, and some to Johnson City,” said True.

He has estimates showing 7,300 veterans in Anderson County.

True believes veterans would travel from other surrounding counties, such as Morgan, Scott, Loudon and Meigs, to a Roane County facility.

“I think it’s been on a lot of other people’s minds,” he said. “It is going to take a lot of people’s help. What is going to be a big thing is getting the community and surrounding communities involved. In fact, right now (American Legion) Post 53 in Harriman is one of the most involved posts.

“We have to get all the local posts and VFWs in the surrounding counties involved to pull together.”

True has scheduled a meeting to provide information and generate support from  veterans, elected leaders and other community members.

The meeting will be at 10 a.m. April 7 in American Legion Post 53 in downtown Harriman.

“I’d like to get 100 or 200 people there,” True said.

Vietnam War veteran Melvin Page regularly travels out of town for treatment. He suffered significant burns to his body from napalm and goes to Johnson City’s VA hospital for treatment.

Page said both of the nearest hospitals are roughly the same distance from Roane County. He believes a hospital in Roane County would be a breakthrough and greatly help area veterans.

“That would be the greatest thing that ever happened in Roane County,” Page said.

Page said that he often encounters fellow veterans from Roane and surrounding counties in Johnson City, as well as patients from Virginia and North Carolina.

“Every time I go up there, I run into someone from Morgan or Scott counties,” Page said.

He and others have to make the trip frequently.

“I’ve been up there five times since October,” Page said. “Everyone this side of Crossville goes to Johnson City unless they already have an established doctor in Murfreesboro.”

People like Page and True think the Veterans Administration would see some savings in the money they pay for travel expenses for some veterans to make the roughly 300-mile round trip to either Johnson City or Murfreesboro.

It will also save the veterans in these surrounding communities money as well.

“My biggest concern is travel these guys are having to do,” True said.

True sees it not only as a win for the veterans, but also for Roane County and Harriman, which could see more retail business growth to accommodate veterans traveling to the area who may eat at local restaurants, shop at area stores and stay overnight at local hotels.

Mayor Chris Mason is also enthusiastic about the opportunity he sees for his city and to help veterans.

“I have had this vision of a VA since the beginning of negotiation with Covenant,” he said. “The contract restricts the use of it for another hospital, but we had the exception of a VA.”

Mason said he’s had conversations with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis about three years ago and there wasn’t a lot of interest at the time.

However, Mason believes strong veteran support could get the leaders’ attention. He doesn’t think one man or even the Harriman City Council can sway interest alone.

“Right now, we are seeing exactly what kind of support it would have locally with a tentative meeting late March or early April,” he said. “We understand it would be used greatly and save our veterans a lot of drive time and convenience.

“On another note, it would be a huge asset to our local economy by bringing a lot of out-of-town veterans and families into our downtown,” he added.

True said the government is focused on creating jobs, and a new facility would create jobs in the facility and by the growth of the surrounding economy.