BERLIN - Disabled while serving in Vietnam and requiring regular medical care since then, David Canter is among the North Country veterans hailing last week's announcement that Veterans Affairs will open clinics in Berlin and Colebrook.
On April 16, U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., both of whom are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the VA, after repeated calls, had agreed to incorporate the Berlin and Colebrook sites into the expansion plan for the White River Junction Medical Center.
Although details about their locations and operation are still being worked out, Shaheen and Ayotte said the Berlin and Colebrook clinics will offer primary care, preventive health care, lab draws and tele-health services through "a shared-staffing model with existing health care clinics."
The part-time clinics are expected to serve more than 2,500 veterans in the North Country and are set to open by the end of the fiscal year. Currently, North Country veterans have to travel to VA facilities in Littleton, Conway or Manchester for some types of care. More involved services and those that require hospitalization are offered at medical centers in White River Junction, Vt., and Augusta, Maine, but only after a referral from a clinic.
Jay Sprinkle, a Vietnam veteran and a team leader at the Berlin Vets Center in Gorham, on Thursday said the Berlin and Colebrook clinics have been a long time coming.
"Veterans have been clamoring for some attention due to the extraordinary time it takes to get to the other clinics," said Sprinkle.
The clinics are a round-trip of several hours away on a good day, he said, while during the winter the trips may not even be possible.
Having clinics closer to home, he added, "is a big deal, and the local veterans community is ecstatic to hear the news."
Sprinkle said he was grateful for the efforts of Shaheen, Ayotte and U.S. Rep. Annie McLane Kuster, D-N.H., all of whom, he said, have taken an active interest in the welfare of veterans.
An estimated 120,000 veterans call New Hampshire home, and Peter Burdett of Bow, who is the chairman of the state Veterans Advisory Council, echoed Sprinkle's take on the Berlin and Colebrook clinics.
A retired naval aviator who is assistant vice president of the Manchester branch of Merrill Lynch, Burdett said he was "keenly aware of the time it takes people from the North Country to drive to the medical centers to get routine stuff done. Those traveling times are not an easy thing to deal with when you're not feeling well, and this fix is tremendous."
Burdett said it's important that veterans register with the VA to determine what benefits they may be eligible for. By his math, only about 30 percent of veterans are signed up.
"Where are the other 70 percent?" he said.
Canter, who is a Berlin resident and a co-chairman of the statewide Vet to Vet program, was a staff sergeant with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and has shrapnel wounds from the war. Since then, he has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has heart problems and a blood disorder that he believes may be related to his exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange and that necessitates his traveling to White River Junction, Vt., to be treated as often as three times a month.The round-trip to Vermont takes about five hours, said Canter, which effectively is an entire day for him. For primary care, he goes to Littleton, which while closer and offering "very good care," is still "an hour each way."Ideally, New Hampshire would have a full-time veterans hospital, Cantor said, but he acknowledged that the Berlin and Colebrook clinics - and the bipartisan effort to make them possible - represent "a very good step in the right direction."
"It's a good thing, but I do have reservations in that we have excellent care at White River Junction, and I hope that we have the same excellent doctors in Colebrook and Berlin, so it's not a step down in care from where we are now."
As a Vietnam veteran, Canter recalled that he and his comrades "did not get much support from our nation" when they came home from the battlefields, "but it's nice to find now, that as a state, there is some interest in helping veterans."