Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Loh flew in a Boeing CH-47 Chinook to Grand Junction to make a special announcement to veterans on the Western Slope: An old Colorado National Guard Armory will soon become a central location for services veterans need.
The Western Slope veteran one-stop, expected to open in May 2019, will provide services for veterans under one roof less than a mile from the VA medical center. It is modeled off the Colorado Springs one-stop, the Mount Carmel Center for Excellence, which opened in 2016.
"This is a veteran one-stop that can do anything from taking care of benefits all the way to down to what's available in the local community and ... any programs out there that will benefit veterans and their families," Loh said.
Loh, the adjutant general of Colorado and executive director of the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, thought he would be driving the nearly five-hour trek from Denver for the announcement because the helicopters were on alert for the Peekaboo fire in Craig and Peak 2 fire in Breckenridge. Luckily, there were enough resources for the fires to use the helicopter, cutting travel time in half.
"Had those not come off of status, we would've driven over here," Loh said.
Renovation of the 14,545-square-foot armory will cost $3 million. Representatives from 50 service organizations sent the proposal to the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs. After two years, Gov. John Hickenlooper approved the project.
For the past 10 years, Department of Veteran Affairs construction projects on the Western Slope had a nearly $30 million economic impact in state and federal funds. One project includes the western Colorado expansion of the Veterans Cemetery in Grand Junction.
Diane Rino, the Western Slope project manager, said there are up to 42,000 veterans living in the region, based on data given by the VA medical center. Loh said about 15,000 use the VA medical center annually. Rino said the proposal was a community-driven one with a partnership with the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Ashley Cameron, a Navy veteran, said the one-stop will save her from the frustration of calling and driving to multiple locations for her needs. Cameron served in the Navy for 10 years and medically retired. She suffers from a traumatic brain injury and struggles with PTSD, and said it's easy for her to become overwhelmed.
"When you are struggling with medical issues and mental health issues, and you're already trying to handle all of that . it makes the struggle even more," Cameron said. "It just gets to where you throw your hands in the air, and you don't even want to do it."
With services all in one place, Cameron said she will feel more supported. She looks forward to seeing what the one-stop will become.
"It's almost like someone is holding your hand, saying 'hey, we're all right here,'" Cameron said.