Originally created 12/11/97

Eisenhower decision sparks glee



News that Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center dodged a downsizing bullet had area veterans and politicians celebrating Wednesday, but hospital leaders refused to join the party until the decision reaches them through official channels.

"We're still waiting for some word," Lt. Col. David Rubenstein, Eisenhower's deputy commander for administrative services, said late Wednesday afternoon. "As soon as we find out official word, we will be all too happy to share it."

Three weeks ago, the Pentagon's comptroller recommended Eisenhower be downsized to a community hospital -- along with 40 other military medical facilities -- to save money. Higher ranking Defense Department and military leaders, however, quickly rejected the proposal, Army and legislative officials confirmed Wednesday.

In a conversation with U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs "assured me that (the issue) is dead," the senator said. "You tell them I got it straight out of the horse's mouth."

Local military retirees and veterans are delighted with the news that Eisenhower won't be curbing service or losing any of its 176 beds, said Frank Valentine, president of the Augusta chapter of The Retired Officers Association.

"The fact that Eisenhower is here and it's available to military retirees, I think it's very important," he said. "It's one of the things we were promised, you know, continued health care. It's one of those benefits you feel you've earned."

From the beginning, the downsizing proposal was simply a low-level budget tool, a scary proposition never embraced by the military's top brass, said Pat Blanchard, president of the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce.

"When this issue about the budget memorandum first surfaced, the chamber did our own investigation and we found that the leaders of the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense did not have any plans to downsize Eisenhower," Mr. Blanchard said.

"They seemed to feel very good about Eisenhower and its role as a regional medical center," he said. "We feel also there is a very strong commitment to continue all of the programs at Eisenhower."

U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, who will visit Eisenhower this afternoon as part of a statewide tour of military bases, had already planned to discuss the downsizing proposal, aides said. But now he can focus on the good news.

"He's very pleased with the decision and he'll be talking about that," said Jonathan Baron, a spokesman for the senator.

The battle against downsizing may be won, but the community should be prepared for others, Mr. Valentine said.

"It's kind of opened our eyes," he said. "Maybe we (veterans) need to develop a strategy in case they try to do this again."