Work on first-ever Defenders Lodge wraps up in Palo Alto

For Vietnam War veteran Billy Bryels, the trip from his home just outside Modesto to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System for treatment is arduous because of the time it takes. But it’s the uncertainty of finding affordable lodging once he arrives that makes it truly difficult.

(L-R) Lee Anderson, a major donor of the Defenders Lodge, Billy Bryels, U.S. Army veteran, and Lisa Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System after the official ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.(Norbert von der Groeben / Daily News)

(L-R) Lee Anderson, a major donor of the Defenders Lodge, Billy Bryels, U.S. Army veteran, and Lisa Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System after the official ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.(Norbert von der Groeben / Daily News)

“In Palo Alto, there’s no such thing as a cheap place to stay,” said Bryels, who earned two Purple Hearts and fought in the Tet Offensive.

But that will change when the first-ever Defenders Lodge officially opens on the VA campus in January. The 34,000-square-foot building boasts 52 rooms with 104 beds, all of which will be available to veterans and their caregivers free of charge for up to seven consecutive nights.

“This takes away the stress of having to find a place to stay,” Bryels said, just outside the front entrance of the Defenders Lodge following a ceremony Tuesday marking its completion.

The $17 million facility is the product of a public-private partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2001 by the Pentagon Federal Credit Union to help members of the military who are struggling financially.

Lisa Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, approached the foundation in 2007 for help after learning that veterans had admitted to sleeping in their cars and even skipping appointments because they couldn’t afford to stay the night in the area.

“By opening this beautiful, 34,000-square-foot hotel, we’re doing so much more than providing lodging or accommodations for our veterans,” Freeman said during the ceremony.

“We’re providing greater access to veterans and their caregivers, we’re offering peace of mind and we’re ensuring that the high cost of lodging in this area is never again a deterrent to getting needed medical attention.”

Lee R. and Penny Anderson provided the $2.5 million “lead gift” needed to get the project off the ground. Roughly $5.5 million remains to be raised to cover the construction cost.

“That’s unbelievable,” Lee Anderson, a West Point graduate, said about the idea of his fellow veterans sleeping in their cars. “That shouldn’t happen, not to our veterans. That’s why I felt so moved to be a part of this.”

The Defenders Lodge will ultimately replace a 49-bed facility that has served a similar function for many years. The so-called Hometel is one of three buildings that are set to be razed to make way for a $250 million complex that will bring the VA’s various outpatient programs under one roof.

The Defenders Lodge and the Hometel are night and day, said Bryels, who has logged more than 30 visits to the latter facility. Originally intended as a temporary surgical ward following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Hometel is small, stark, and doesn’t meet accessibility standards for the disabled.

People take a tour of a guest's room at the new Defender Lodge at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System after the official ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (Norbert von der Groeben / Daily News)

People take a tour of a guest’s room at the new Defender Lodge at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System after the official ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (Norbert von der Groeben / Daily News)

“The comfort isn’t there,” he said. “But it beats sleeping in your car or someplace else that’s less than the quality of the Defenders Lodge.”

In contrast, the Defenders Lodge is hotel-like, featuring wireless Internet access, lounges and artwork.

The facility is expected to serve as many as 20,000 veterans annually, said Christopher Flynn, president and CEO of the foundation. That’s roughly a third of the outpatients VA Palo Alto will see this year.

Flynn said it remains to be seen whether additional facilities will be built. The foundation still has fundraising to do and wants to see what kind of impact the Defenders Lodge has on veterans seeking the medical care they need.

Mark Boal, who wrote the award-winning screenplays for “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” said he hopes to see more of them opened.

“It’s an incredible facility. It’s exactly the kind of thing that should be replicated all over the country. This is a state-of-the-art way to give veterans the support they deserve, but, unfortunately, all too often they don’t actually get,” Boal said. “I’m hoping this is the future right here.”

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