South Dakota veterans and the Hot Springs community are currently celebrating the VA’s announcement that it has begun the process of rescinding the order to close the Hot Springs VA facility. This was a hard-fought victory in a battle that we weren’t always sure we would win. It started almost a decade ago, in 2011, when the Obama administration announced plans to realign – read, close – the Hot Springs VA facility. I was well aware of what the Hot Springs facility means to South Dakota veterans and to the entire Hot Springs community, and I determined that there wasn’t going to be a closure if I could help it.
I knew that closing the Hot Springs facility would put accessible care out of the reach of a lot of rural and tribal veterans. Not only rural and tribal South Dakota veterans, but rural and tribal veterans from neighboring Wyoming and Nebraska who depend on the Hot Springs facility for care. Traveling to Rapid City for care, as the VA proposed, would be a real hardship, if not an impossibility, for many of these veterans.
I also strongly disagreed with moving not only medical care but the vital post-traumatic stress disorder program from Hot Springs to Rapid City. Not only would this put this program out of the reach of some veterans, I believed it was also a mistake to remove a tremendously effective program from the place where it has been so successful and try to reconstitute it elsewhere. So I got to work in Congress, along with other members of the South Dakota delegation.
My first priority was simply trying to get Hot Springs’ veterans a hearing with the VA. In 2016, after years of trying, we persuaded then-VA secretary Bob McDonald to visit Hot Springs. Unfortunately, the visit didn’t work, and the next year the secretary signed an order finalizing the decision to close the majority of the facility. But the battle wasn’t over.
In 2014, I had succeeded in attaching a measure to appropriations legislation prohibiting the closure of the Hot Springs facility until a national VA realignment strategy was introduced. Each year I’ve managed to renew that measure. And in March of this year, we got another chance to persuade the VA. After I learned that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie would be visiting Hot Springs in March, I organized a letter with the rest of the South Dakota delegation strongly urging the secretary to make time to sit down with Hot Springs veterans and other stakeholders and listen to their concerns about the planned closure.
To our great gratitude, the secretary agreed. And days after meeting with the veterans, the secretary announced that the VA would be rescinding its decision and that Hot Springs would remain open. That meeting was the key.
I worked hard in Congress – along with other members of the South Dakota delegation – to keep the Hot Springs facility open, but the battle would never have succeeded without the passion of Hot Springs veterans and the Hot Springs community, which rallied in support of the facility. Meeting with these veterans and other stakeholders and hearing their thoughts and stories played a major role in Secretary Wilkie’s decision.
2020 has been a tough year. But even in tough times, good things happen. The VA’s announcement that it has begun the process of rescinding its order to close the Hot Springs facility has given a lot of us reason for gratitude. I’m thankful to Secretary Wilkie for taking a real look at South Dakota veterans’ concerns and reversing the VA’s decision to close the facility. I look forward to celebrating with South Dakota veterans the next time I’m in Hot Springs – or as a lot of us know it, the Veterans’ Town.