Long Beach VA Dedicates Historic New BRC

by Tom Zampieri

Washington, DC, was most definitely not where I found myself on a warm and sunny morning on January 25.

The venue was Southern California as longtime BVA Field Service Representative Earl Ivie and I gathered with more than 700 other dignitaries, family members, VA employees, and interested members of the general public to witness the dedication of Project 402 at the Long Beach, California, VA Medical Center.

Project 402, a $100 million addition of 200,000 square feet occupying seven new buildings at the facility, includes pharmacy service, emergency medicine, primary care, a national employee education program, a human resources center, a 350-seat auditorium, and a new canteen with both an eatery and retail stores.

The facility houses the residential 24-bed Major Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., O.D., VA Blind Rehabilitation Center at which professional clinicians now teach blind and visually impaired veterans independent living skills such as home management and food preparation so that the latter can meet their needs safely and efficiently. The BRC in Tucson, Arizona, is the only one comparable in size to the Long Beach center.

Glass, aluminum, and steel construction dominate the new buildings. They stand in stark contrast to the existing 1940s-era concrete of the older portions of the medical center.

"This truly is a great day," remarked Dr. Robert Petzel, VA Undersecretary for Health, as he spoke to the dedication attendees. "We here make one more installment to the debt of gratitude that we owe to America's heroes."

Dr. Sally Dang takes on her new role as a low-vision optometrist at the BRC named after her late husband. Pictured, left to right, Sally's family at dedicatory ceremonies: son Ryan, Sally, father Dr. Minh Dang, mother Snow Dang, and son Brandan. Within inset photo is son Robert Harrison Soltes. Photo courtesy of Don Gagilano
Dr. Sally Dang takes on her new role as a low-vision optometrist at the BRC named after her late husband. Pictured, left to right, Sally's family at dedicatory ceremonies: son Ryan, Sally, father Dr. Minh Dang, mother Snow Dang, and son Brandan. Within inset photo is son Robert Harrison Soltes. Photo courtesy of Don Gagilano

Petzel also said that the new construction, which took three years to complete, was designed to accommodate an integrated medical care model for current and past service members, and that the model was part of a VA systemwide effort to expand access to service, reduce the backlog of disability claims, and end veteran homelessness. He was joined by Veterans Integrated Service Network officials and medical center senior staff.

Dr, Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., an Army Major in Iraq, was the first military optometrist to lose his life while performing in the line of duty in combat operations. A graduate of Norwich University, Major Soltes attended optometry school in Boston and served for five years on active duty before retiring to set up private practice in the Long Beach area with his wife, Dr. Sally Dang. The couple had three sons—Ryan, now 17; Brandan, now 14; and Robert, now 7.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Major Soltes joined the Army Reserves, He was assigned to the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, which left for Mosul, Iraq, in late summer of 2004. He was deployed as a public health officer and commanded a team charged with setting up seven hospitals to help the Iraqi people access a range of health care services.

On October 13, just weeks after the Major's arrival in Iraq, the first hospital funding was approved. A day later, he was in a convoy returning from a meeting with Iraqi health officials when a vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device rammed his Humvee. Major Soltes, age 36, died in the explosion.

Sally and her sons were accompanied at the dedication by many friends and other family members, including Major Soltes' parents, Colonel Charles R. Soltes, Sr. (Ret.), a Vietnam veteran with 30 years of service in the Army, and Nancy Soltes.

Two years ago BVA worked closely with other VSOs and the American Optometric Association in securing legislation that would name the BRC after Major Soltes. Representatives John Campbell III (R-CA-48) and Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA-46), supported by then House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-51), introduced H.R. 4360. From that point the bill moved swiftly through the legislative process.

Speaking at a reception held for the Soltes family, their friends, and military and professional colleagues the evening before the dedication, I presented the framed plaque to be placed in the new BRC. The plaque contains the official White House copy of the public law authorizing its new name.

"While we can never erase the pain of Rob's loss," I stated in my presentation, "we should know that his work of helping low-vision and blinded veterans will continue, bringing hope and fulfillment of his dream through the professional staff serving here."