In the waning weeks of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln realized that sooner rather than later, the tens of thousands of Union soldiers returning from the battlefield would be forced to fend for themselves.
Many times, we reflect on the number of soldiers who died in the War Between the States — more than 655,000 from both sides — but overlook those who made it back home, in nowhere near the same physical shape. On the Union side alone, more than 280,000 were injured, many of whom would require some sort of medical care for the rest of their lives.
Lincoln established what would become the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, with the first facility opening in Augusta, Maine, in 1866. Another dozen would join it by the time the Veterans Bureau was established in 1921, and the number would grow to some 125 Veterans Administration hospitals following World War II.
VA medical centers provide our heroes with high-quality medical care for the rest of their lives. It’s the least we can do for those willing to give so much for our country.
Veterans on Long Island have been treated in Northport since the 1920s, and a full patient care facility opened in 1972, on 268 acres of land not far from the Nassau-Suffolk line. It currently serves more than 50,000 former servicemen and women, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with most hailing from the Suffolk side.
Northport is one of 10 such facilities in the state, so, overall, there’s one for about every 2 million New Yorkers. But because of its location, the VA facility on Long Island serves an area with a population of 7.6 million. And if the VA follows through on a new recommendation, it would worsen the situation.
Washington expects that the number of Long Island veterans who need the Northport center will drop by nearly a third before the decade is over. And despite millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years — including some significant funding allocated by U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi — Northport’s facility is significantly outdated, and it would cost more than $600 million to make still more needed upgrades.
With all that in mind, the VA wants to shutter Northport, and shift services to neighboring civilian hospitals and other veterans facilities, primarily one across the New York City line, in St. Albans, Queens — nearly 50 miles from Northport. While that might be closer for some Nassau veterans, it would be a hardship for anyone not close to Queens.
Suozzi has joined a chorus of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in deriding this plan, which calls for closing 17 VA hospitals nationwide. Although the agency plans to replace them with 30 new facilities, critics of the proposal say that not enough thought is being given to where those facilities would be located.
Northport is a perfect example. The VA is justifying shuttering the facility based on a seven-year outlook, but it could take that many years just to get its new proposal off the ground, given the miles of bureaucratic red tape in Washington. Projections are needed for the next 30 years, not seven.
And since the population of Long Island is growing, not shrinking, it’s safe to say there will be enough former servicemen and women among the millions living here to justify not only keeping the hospital in Northport, but giving it the upgrades it needs.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur once famously declared that “no man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” The World War II leader meant that the tens of thousands of men and women at the ready to protect those freedoms needed to be supported in every way during — and after — their service.
VA medical centers are the very cornerstone of that support, and the bar to justify removing even one can never be set too high.