More than 1,000 veterans, family members and supporters took to the streets of Hot Springs, forming a throng of people – dozens of Native Americans on horseback, hundreds more on foot – who marched from the Hot Springs American Legion to the VA Black Hills Health Care System campus.
The walk was a protest over the proposed elimination of the VA Medical Center in Hot Springs and the moving of the domiciliary -- for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse treatment -- to Rapid City. BHHCS director Stephen DiStasio presented the proposed changes in December.
Efforts in Hot Springs have continued since DiStasio’s presentation, forming committees and gathering information, to be presented as a counterproposal in the near future.
On Saturday, after the trek through town and a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Cemetery on the VA grounds, the event moved to the front lawn of the VA Domiciliary, where Lakota veteran Joseph Brown Thunder noted “this is sacred, healing ground. Veterans have been here for many years for the healing that takes place. This healing circle needs to be maintained.”
Fellow Lakota veteran Myron Pourier said he was proud to be standing with his brothers and sisters and shared that when he and other Lakota went to Washington, D.C., to meet with Secretary of Veterans Affairs head Eric Shinsecki, “Nobody in D.C. is aware of what is happening here. The D.C. office doesn’t know of the underhanded, corrupt dealings that are taking place.”
Pourier said that none of the petitions signed to keep the Hot Springs VA facility open have been sent to Washington.
“I am going back in a few weeks,” he said. “Get the petitions together, get them to me and I will hand deliver them to (Shinsecki).”
The keynote address was given by J. David Cox, the national secretary/treasurer of American Federation of Government Employees.
“One thousand people turned out today to fight for the men and women who fought for them,” Cox said. “I challenge everyone in South Dakota to in turn challenge their members of Congress and ask ‘Are you voting for veterans?’”
Cox said when he returns to Washington, he will knock on doors and tell elected representatives on Capitol Hill to support all VAs, particularly the one in Hot Springs.
“Why close this facility? We should be expanding it,” Cox said. “Our veterans deserve the best care possible for the sacrifice they have made and that care needs to be done at a VA facility.”