Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Maria Lockwood
The Daily Telegram - 10/01/2008

When his country called, Jack Bellino answered. Leaving behind a wife and 1-year-old son, he went to war.

“I spent 29 months in a tent,” he said, putting up communications towers along air strips in Australia and the Philippines during World War II. When he returned to Superior, the bus dropped him off in the middle of the night. Without fanfare or cheers, he walked to his house, knocked on the door and was reunited with his family.

Decades later, he stood up for his countrymen in another way. As a member of the Thomas F. Stein VFW Post 1091, Bellino drew up a resolution to bring a veteran’s clinic to the Twin Ports. It became a reality in 1989.

Today, as a federal bidding process for the Twin Ports VA Outpatient Clinic gears up, local vets like Bellino are ready to do battle, if need be, to keep the facility.

“It looks like we’ll have to be fighting for our clinic again,” said Carl Zukowski, a Korean War veteran. “The fight we had last time was a real dandy.”

Officials from the Superior-based clinic and it’s parent facility, the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, say the bidding process is required by law and there are no plans to privatize the clinic. But interest in the process is running high and rumors are rampant.

“We want to keep our eye on it,” said John Robinson, a Korean War veteran and member of the Douglas County Veteran’s Commission.

“We haven’t been told to start worrying yet,” said Gayle Carlson, commander of VFW Post 1091. “If they were trying to take the clinic from Superior, I think they would see an uprising of the vets.”

It’s happened before. In 2004, the VA planned to privatize the clinic because a medical director could not be found. Hundreds of veterans staged a rally at the clinic, located at St. Mary’s Hospital of Superior. Legislators joined together to sign a letter against privatization.

The end result was a five-year lease extension. But that ends in August.

Bellino is one of 5,450 veterans who use the clinic for their primary health care.

“They give me good service,” he said, and save him a long drive to Minneapolis for routine check-ups, medication and tests.

With a small staff, it can take a few days for veterans to get a regular appointment for things such as a cold. But, said Dan Knight, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1965-91, “a couple years ago I had chest pains all morning ... I went to the clinic, they took care of me right away.”

Knight, a member of the Richard I. Bong American Legion Post 435, said one of the benefits of going to the smaller clinic is that “they know me.”

Services at the clinic are expanding, Zukowski said. Hearing and vision tests are now available.

“The more vets that register and use it, the more services we get,” Carlson said.

The current site is a good fit, veterans say. Parking is plentiful and it’s easy to find.

And, Bellino asked, “where else are they going to go?”

The veterans are staying vigilant, however.

“We’re trying to veterans lined up,” Zukowski said. “We’re informing them all this is coming up, we may have to fight.

“We’ll be ready when the time comes.”