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Care for those who served

Press Photo by Lisa Miller Onlookers watch a ceremony at the new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Dickinson Tuesday morning.

One hundred miles is a long way to travel for health care -- especially if you don't drive a car.

This was a common theme among veterans in southwest North Dakota who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning at the new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic in Dickinson.

"We need it," Dickinson veteran Ron Nichols said of the clinic after the ceremony. "More and more veterans are getting older every year and we always had to go so far to get assistance."

Sen. Kent Conrad attended the ceremony along with a number of guests, from veterans' service officers to staff of CRAssociates (which runs the clinic). Among the most special guests were those who the clinic is designed for, the nearly 1,000 veterans who have been without a veterans' clinic for months.

Great Plains Clinic in Dickinson decided not to renew its contract with the VA in May, according to a press release from Conrad's office. Since then, veterans have traveled to Bismarck, Fargo, Montana, South Dakota and farther for care.

"This is A1 for Dickeyville," Dickinson resident and veteran Nick Klemm said with a smile while in the clinic waiting room Tuesday afternoon. "Finally, we can have something that says this is our own."

Klemm shared stories with Dickinson veteran Ron Keller, who said he is also delighted and overjoyed to have a clinic.

He wasn't alone. Veterans and strangers met during the ribbon-cutting ceremony and talked about good and bad times in the military. They also talked about the struggles of getting care since Great Plains decided not to renew the contract.

Billings County Veterans Service Officer Roy Basaraba, an Army veteran who served in Korea, spoke with Fort Berthold Veterans Service Officer Thomas Crowsheart, who served in Vietnam in the Navy. They stood outside the 21st Street West clinic waiting for a tour and talked about how traveling often isn't easy for veterans, especially when they are sick, disabled or driving through what can be treacherous North Dakota blizzards.

"It took a long time to get this clinic and we deserve to pay back those who served," Basaraba said.

Conrad said he always learns something at these types of events.

"A half a dozen (veterans) talked about their situations -- those can be very moving," he said after the dedication. One man talked about being injured in a gas fire that melted his glasses and wounded his face, he said. Though a trying situation, the man was willing to share with the senator the ways it has changed his life.

Many others thanked Conrad for helping get the facility up and running.

Conrad said he got a phone call shortly after Great Plains decided not to renew its contract and he knew something had to be done. He immediately got to work with Sen. Byron Dorgan, Rep. Earl Pomeroy and others to put the wheels in motion.

Through sometime "energized" and sometimes "heated" conversation, their work paid off.

"They served us well," Conrad said of the veterans, adding "let's make sure we make certain to keep this promise to our veterans."

The clinic offers primary care with a staff of five, Administrator Meagan Heckaman said, adding the clinic opened Sept. 15.