Veterans in the military town of Clarksville cheered Wednesday as officials opened a long-awaited VA clinic with twice the capacity of the existing facility, which had gotten so overcrowded that — at one point — it could no longer take new patients. And perhaps no one is as excited as George O'Connor.
At a brief ribbon cutting ceremony, the mayor of Clarksville went off script and spoke directly to the smiley Vietnam veteran who had been called up from the back of the room. O'Connor had ridden his bike 90 minutes from his home across town near Fort Campbell to attend.
"Your prayers have been answered," Mayor Kim McMillan said. "Welcome to your new home, George."
Then when it was time to snip the ribbon with oversized scissors, someone in the crowd yelled, "let George do it." And they did.
This new clinic has been badly needed, as wait times plague the VA system nationally and reached a crisis level in Clarksville.
"The problem is, the facility was so small, it hurt," O'Connor said. "You could hardly get in."
In 2015, the clinic had to stop admitting new patients, sending a ripple throughout the region's VA system. Currently, even veterans who live in Clarksville are having to go to clinics in Dover, Bowling Green and Hopkinsville.
The new 34,000 square-foot office also has some new services, like optometry and radiology. As a stroke and cancer survivor, O'Connor says it's a life-changer.k
"Before, we had to go to Nashville to the eye clinic," he said. "I had to turn around and borrow a friend of mine's car because I'm not going to ride my bicycle that far."
The Clarksville clinic has been on the VA's to-do list for years as the area continues to attract Army veterans. It's been in the works so long that one of the biggest concerns during construction was that it's probably already too small.
The official opening for patients is Jan. 16.