SAN DIEGO – Representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and contractors gathered June 16 at the San Diego Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus to break ground on the new Spinal Cord Injury/Community Living Center.
Projected to open in fall 2024, the center will provide care to veterans and active-duty personnel with spinal cord injuries and disorders, who live in the San Diego and Imperial counties in California, and in Arizona and southern Nevada.
The new facility, which is replacing the current building at the San Diego VA Medical Center, will be a 197,000-square-foot, four-story standalone structure. The current center is one of 25 spinal cord injury and disorder facilities at VA centers throughout the U.S. Each center has teams of experienced medical professionals trained to deal with the unique challenges that affect those with spinal cord injuries and disorders.
The Corps’ team consists of the Los Angeles District, which is leading the effort; the Albuquerque District, which is providing engineering support; the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, and its Medical Center of Expertise; and the Program Executive Office at the South Pacific Division, which provides guidance and standardization for Department of Veterans Affairs’ projects.
“It’s a big, broad team. It takes a lot of effort to put this together,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Owen, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division commander.
“Our country owes it to our veterans to give them the best quality service we can provide,” Owen said. “This project is a renewed emphasis in the kind of service we owe our veterans. Ultimately, we’ll have a facility that is high quality and will deliver the services that our veterans need.”
Also part of the project is the forthcoming construction of an adjacent seven-level parking structure that will accommodate about 1,000 vehicles. The parking structure is scheduled for completion in July 2023.
Robert M. Smith, director of the VA San Diego Healthcare System, said the project is 14 years in the making, adding it illustrates how important the project is to the campus and the veterans it serves.
In addition to the new facility and its services, the new space will allow decompression of the main hospital, Smith said. Follow-on projects will facilitate conversion of multi-patient rooms to single beds, and conversion of the existing SCI unit will support ambulatory care.
“In contrast to demographic projections in many parts of our country, veteran numbers in San Diego are projected to increase, rather than to decrease. This building and the accompanying parking garage are absolutely crucial to our ability to deliver the care and services that those veterans have earned.”
One of those veterans is former Navy SEAL Al Kovach Jr., who, following a parachuting accident, first checked into the spinal cord injury facility in June 1991. Having unexpectedly transitioned from being an active-duty service member to veteran at age 26, he said he didn’t know what to expect.
“When I came here, the nurses were so darned positive about everything, and I even thought I was at the wrong hospital because there were butterflies on a ceiling tiles,” he said. “And, I had a room with a view. But you all basically put Humpty Dumpty back together again and gave me some opportunity and hope for the future. I can’t believe it’s 30 years later, and we’re going to do it all over again – build another state-of-the-art spinal-cord injury center.”
Since then, Kovach has advocated for other veterans with spinal cord injuries. From July 2014 to June 2017, Kovach served as national president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, an organization that advocates for quality health care, benefits, research and education, and civil rights and opportunities for its members.
“I know that the PVA wanted to help build something that our veterans could come home to,” Kovach said. “This really has become my second home, and now I look forward to my new home.”
The Corps’ partnership with the VA in the region includes 13 major projects and an investment of more than $4.36 billion in updating and upgrading facilities throughout the Pacific Southwest.