PUEBLO - Southern Colorado veterans won't have to drive as far to see a dentist or eye doctor thanks to a new VA facility that opened in Pueblo on Friday.

Nearly 300 - including the likes of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel - were on hand for the 9 a.m. grand opening of the community-based outpatient clinic, at 4776 Eagleridge Circle, near the interstate.

"Now veterans in this area have more of their care right here without having to make the long trip to Denver," said Petzel, adding that it was imperative that veterans are able to access "a high quality of health care close to home."

"Today we pay one more installment on the debt of gratitude we owe veterans for their debt of service," he said.

Tipton told veterans in attendance that the sacrifices they've made reminded him of a painting in which George Washington reviews wounded troops at Valley Forge.

"They had bandages at their feet, and no wages but the promise of freedom on the horizon," he said. "You're part of that great tradition."

The 31,000-square-foot clinic replaces a smaller clinic at 4112 Outlook Blvd. That clinic housed primary health care, X-ray, physical therapy, lab, podiatry and mental health services.

The new clinic, which opened Monday, houses those services, dental and optometry services, a program that encourages veterans to stay physically fit, and additional mental health care providers.

Pueblo Transit will add the clinic to its bus route, making it accessible to veterans without personal transportation, VA officials said Friday.

Vietnam War veteran Bill Thompson won't need a lift to the facility. If he had to, he could walk.

The former Army infantryman lives mere blocks away from the clinic and couldn't be more pleased with its proximity - and the promise of state-of-the-art care.

"It's gorgeous," he said Friday as he prepared to tour the building for the first time.

Thompson had been receiving care for post-traumatic stress disorder at the old clinic.

He hoped to learn what the new facility's beefed-up mental health care services would mean for him.

"I'm excited about its potential to help all of us, including new veterans," he said.

Southern Colorado veterans "have a lot to look forward to" with the opening of the new Pueblo clinic and other facilities scheduled to open in the next two years, said Ralph Giolotti, the director of the VA Rocky Mountain Network.

A new Colorado Springs clinic is slated to open in June. A new Golden clinic is slated to open in February, and a new Denver-metro VA regional hospital is slated to open in late 2015, said Judi Guy, a VA planner for the facilities.

It took nine months and nearly $3 million to properly outfit pre-existing building the new clinic now inhabits. The building will be leased for the next 20 years for approximately $1 million a year, she added.

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