Craig veteran starts campaign to get medical services locally

Man tired of journey to veteran's hospital in Grand Junction

For many veterans, the road has just become too long.

After serving their country from the beaches of Normandy in World War II and the beaches of Saudi Arabia in Desert Storm, veterans give something that most Americans are thankful for every day.

The veterans of Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties are now waging another war, one that could protect them in much the same way that they protected the future of their own country so many times in the past.

With the average age of American veterans steadily getting older, many believe it is time they are rewarded for the duties they've performed.

They are not looking for honorary medals or military recognition. What they are looking for is something even more important adequate health care. With more than 2,100 veterans living in Moffat County, finding a health care facility that can serve their medical needs has become more challenging, a challenge that a few local veterans are unable to rise to.

"Just for me to be able to see a doctor and have my insurance cover it, I have to drive to either Denver, Salt Lake City or Grand Junction," Korean War veteran Warren Bakus said. "My brother, who is 81 and lives in Milner, will ride with me when he needs to go to the doctor, but we often have to stop three or four times on the way so that he can get out and stretch. It isn't easy having to make a 10-hour trip to just be able to see a doctor, especially when you're getting on in years.

"Things need to change, and veterans need to be able to get medical treatment in Moffat County. It has become something that is long overdue," he said. "I have written letters to the president, governor, senators, state representatives, county commissioners and the city council. I am going to do everything I can to help stir up some trouble on this issue."

The former Army rifleman and self-professed troublemaker believes that an agreement needs to be worked out between the Veterans Administration and state of Colorado that would provide medical services for veterans in either Craig or Steamboat Springs. With more than 1,560 veterans living in Routt County, and another 865 in Rio Blanco County, Bakus believes that a clinic or hospital in the Yampa Valley is long overdue.

"They have programs like this in other parts of the state, but there is nothing in the northwest corner of the state, and it is about time we get one," he said. "We shouldn't have to drive three to four hours to receive medical care."

Bill Frye, veterans service officer for the Colorado Division of Veterans Affairs, knows the drive to Grand Junction all to well. One of his duties is to drive veterans to the Grand Junction Veteran's Hospital. Although he enjoys the time that he gets to spend with his fellow veterans along the way, Frye believes that the drive should become a thing of the past.

"It makes you feel good to be helping people out," he said. "But, a hospital or clinic here in Craig is long overdue. There are people in Wyoming that are housebound that I have to often go pick up, and it can turn into a two-day trip for these people just to see a doctor."

At the State Veterans Administration Convention in Vail earlier this year, State VA Director Richard Cresko addressed the issue of a hospital or clinic in Northwest Colorado.

"I'd love to see them get a clinic there, but in the past five years we have put in a number of VA hospitals, or teamed up to create clinics for veterans. With the increasing number of veterans growing older, the number of vets who visit these clinics is also going to increase."

Bakus believes VA hospital administrators are more interested in catering to the convenience of government officials and doctors than they are to providing accessible access to their patients.

"They put these hospitals where it is easier for the doctors to get to, not where it is easy for the veterans to get to," he said. "I am going to do everything that I can to raise the awareness about us not having a hospital around here. I'm only 71 years old, so I have more than enough time to make sure that we can do something about this."

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