ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The former head of the state’s Veterans Services Department is working to create a one-stop shop where New Mexico’s estimated 170,700 veterans can go for essentially every service they might need.
And he thinks the former Lovelace hospital at 5400 Gibson SE – a stone’s throw from the Raymond G. Murphy Veterans Affairs Medical Center – is an ideal location.
“Right now, it’s in the visionary stage, but I believe it’s something we can do,” said John M. Garcia, former head of the Veterans Services Department and most recently deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Garcia, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of New Mexico’s economic development department, envisions a complex where veterans and their families can apply for disability benefits, get needed medical treatment or find help starting or expanding a business.
Currently, he said, a veteran would have to visit separate locations for each.
Sitting in the foyer of the 544,000-square-foot former hospital – now owned by local businessmen and restaurateurs Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos, for whom Garcia is a contractor – Garcia said the facility has about 200,000 square feet available for a potential “veterans center.”
“This is a unique situation for the city and the state … to create a 200,000-square-foot veteran-centric center,” Garcia said, adding that the undertaking would involve many players.
“It has to be a private-public sector venture, it’s got to be a city-state effort,” he said.
The facility, renamed Gibson Medical Center after Kapnison and Daskalos bought it in 2007, now houses an array of medical businesses, including ABQ Health Partners, a senior care facility and a charter school for young people with behavioral issues.
Garcia, who advocated for traditional and alternative treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder while he was secretary of the state Veterans Services Department, said he’d also like the center to become a regional hub for treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury – signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Over the next three years, you’re going to see a tsunami of new veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Garcia said. “As military men and women get out – and many are moving to Sun Belt states – are we going to be ready for them? Let’s create something that will take care of them.”
“The VA has made major improvements, but there’s still a need to address these new signature injuries, PTSD and TBI. Why not do that here?”
“We’ve got a top VA facility across the street,” Garcia said, referring to the state’s largest veterans hospital. “We’ve got a VA regional office Downtown. Why not merge them here, where veterans can park and walk across the street to the VA for care?”
The VA’s Regional Benefit Office at Fifth and Gold SW is crowded and offers very little parking for visitors, Garcia said.
“What I’m proposing to the VA is, let’s realign that VA facility with this one,” Garcia said.
Jessica Jacobsen, deputy director of the VA’s Dallas Regional Office of Public Affairs, said that while the VA supports the concept of a one-stop shop for veterans, “Right now there are no commitments for something like this to be done.”
“The (Albuquerque) medical center currently has many projects in the works, but they have the space for them,” she said. “So at this time, they are not at a point where they need some of the old Lovelace hospital space.”
And, Jacobsen said, the Albuquerque VA Regional Office is currently undergoing expansion renovations of the Downtown facility “in order to help expedite the processing and adjudication of benefits for veterans.”
Garcia said he will be meeting with the VA, Mayor Richard Berry, Gov. Susana Martinez, legislators, local businesses and the state Health Department over the next few months to pitch the veterans center concept.
“I often tell people that veterans are not a problem, they’re a solution to problems,” Garcia said. “Let’s capitalize on that.”