TOMS RIVER — It's a project many years in the making.
And just in time for May's Military Appreciation Month, ground was broken to mark the start of construction for the new Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic in Toms River, slated to open in spring 2024.
The 68,000-square-foot clinic will be located at 1051 Hooper Ave., off Caudina Avenue adjacent to the Seacourt Pavilion and close to Ocean County Mall. It is more than double the size of the James J. Howard Outpatient Clinic on Route 70 in Brick.
Veterans and advocacy groups have lobbied for an expanded clinic for years, pointing out that many former service members have been forced to travel to East Orange for services, or faced lengthy wait times in to see specialists.
It will also include 480 parking spaces, a plus for veterans who have long complained of difficulties parking at the Brick site. It will offer veterans primary health care, women's care, dental care, mental health counseling and physical therapy.
Mayor Maurice B. "Mo" Hill Jr., served 35 years in the U.S. Navy, retiring in 2005 as a rear admiral; Hill lobbied strongly for the VA to be located in Toms River. He wore his service dress white uniform to the groundbreaking ceremony May 16, and brought along a copy of his draft card from 1965 for the occasion.
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Hill noted that the majority of military members are not career officers but instead are those who either were drafted in the past, or have enlisted for a period of time since the military became a volunteer force.
"When they take that oath they are giving the government a blank check to go anywhere, at any time, in defense of our precious freedoms," Hill said. "Our job is to repay that check that the government cashed by providing for their medical needs when they return home."
Hill long argued that the Hooper Avenue site was the best in the county for a VA clinic, as "it's literally the perfect location that presents our veterans with one-stop shopping,"
The clinic will be adjacent to a new 121,000-square-foot, three-story building that will house Ocean County's Board of Social Services, as well as the county's Veterans Service Bureau. County officials broke ground for the new social services building last summer.
The township has been working with the county to connect the two sites for easy access. Hill was joined at the groundbreaking by VA officials, Ocean County Commissioners Gary Quinn, Bobbi Jo Crea, Ginny Haines and Joseph Vicari, Toms River Council President Kevin M. Geoghegan, Vice President Matt Lotano and Councilman James Quinlisk, along with members of George P. Vanderveer American Legion Post 129 in Toms River.
Mayors and council members from several Ocean County towns were also in attendance, including Berkeley Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. and Councilman James Byrnes, a decorated Vietnam veteran; South Toms River Mayor Gregory Handshy Manchester Mayor Robert Hudak, Seaside Heights Mayor Anthony Vaz, Point Pleasant Mayor Robert Sabosik, and Plumsted Mayor Robert Bowen.
"“We applaud today's groundbreaking for a new state of the art VA Clinic in Toms River," Berkeley Mayor Amato said. "This will provide easy access to our veterans seeking medical care. We have many World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans that have difficulty traveling long distances for the medical care they need. When completed, this will provide a short and convenient ride for them."
Hill had special praise for township Planner Dave Roberts' work on the project.
Watch Hill talk about Lomell's story in the Veterans Day video above.
Hill and Toms River council members have requested that the new clinic be named for Leonard G. "Bud" Lomell, a Toms River native and highly decorated U.S. Army Ranger who scaled the cliffs at Pointe-du-Hoc in Normandy on D-Day to help find and disable heavy German artillery that could have been used to shell troops on Utah Beach.
Hill praised the work of Township Planner
Toms River was competing with Brick and Lakewood to be the site of the new clinic.
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The Department of Veterans Affairs selected the Toms River site as the location of the new clinic in August, approving a submission made by FD Stonewater, an Arlington, Va.-based firm that is the township's designated redeveloper for the clinic site.
.The VA awarded a 20-year lease for the clinic to FDS Toms River last summer. The company will build the facility and lease it to the VA. The total contract award for the new clinic is almost $61 million.
The Brick clinic is among New Jersey's busiest, serving between 10,000 and 12,000 patients a year. Brick's clinic serves three to four times as many patients as a majority of other VA clinics in New Jersey.
The Brick clinic offers medical care for veterans, including primary health care, dental care, women's health care, mental health counseling and physical therapy. In 2014, a 5,000-square-foot annex was opened about a mile away on Route 88.
U.S. Reps. Andy Kim, D-N.J., and Chris Smith, R-N.J., both lobbied for the clinic expansion and celebrated the start of construction.
"The Toms River VA Clinic is designed to better meet the unique healthcare needs of an ever-growing veteran’s population in Ocean and the region and better serve veterans by its proximity to other services," Smith said. "VA health professionals have pioneered care in many areas including assisting those suffering from PTSD and numerous other service-connected disabilities."
Kim drew praise from Hill last year for his work on the clinic project.
"I’m proud to have delivered a new state-of-the-art VA clinic to Toms River, but there’s a lot of work left to do," Kim said. "We have to deliver for our veterans and this clinic is a good start....but I will continue pushing until I see doors open and veterans getting the care they’ve earned."
Smith noted he had started seeking support for an outpatient clinic in Ocean County back in the early 1980s, when he first became a member of Congress, because of the growing number of veterans in the area. The Brick clinic opened in 1991.
"But as we all know, the need has significantly outpaced capacity," Smith said. "The new clinic will nearly double the size of the Brick clinic providing a venue for significantly more medical and support staff."
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. A finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in public service, she's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Toms River NJ: New VA clinic to provide better services for veterans