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DANDY GYM VETERANS' STRUGGLE PAYS OFF AS NEW FITNESS CENTER OPENS.

Byline: Lisa M. Sodders Staff Writer

NORTH HILLS - The veterans asked for a new gym.

What they got Friday, after years of lobbying the Department of Veterans Affairs and numerous politicians, was a new, $1.7 million Therapeutic Fitness Center at the Sepulveda VA.

``I think it looks great; I'm impressed,'' said Air Force veteran Martin Light, 70, of Van Nuys. ``It'll save us from dying a couch potato's

death.''

About 200 veterans, community leaders and elected officials turned out Friday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the refurbished center, which was damaged in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and closed by VA officials in 1999.

The reopening ceremony comes just six months after the initial groundbreaking.

``We're our own best doctors,'' said Steven Palmer, 80, of Panorama City, one of the veterans instrumental in efforts to repair the gym. The facility will strengthen more than just muscles, he said.

``When you come here, there's the camaraderie. We need each other, because we speak the same language.''

The opening follows nearly three years of broken promises and bureaucratic delays to fix the gym and make it earthquake-proof. Initially, VA officials had promised to repair the gym but instead closed it indefinitely in 1999 after determining it was too expensive to keep open.

The situation began to change after a lengthy campaign by local veterans, numerous columns by the Daily News' Dennis McCarthy, and the help of Congressmen Howard Berman, D-Mission Hills, Howard P. ``Buck'' McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, and Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks. With their help, $1.7 million was finally secured to repair the gym.

On Friday, the hardwood-floor gym had been refurbished and smelled of new paint, but a swimming pool had been filled in to help stabilize the structure. Plans are in the works to raise private funds to build a new pool, said Charles Dorman, acting director of the VA Greater Los Angeles.

Berman praised the members of the North Hills Veterans Advisory Board as a dedicated group ``who called my office, stopped me in the street and fought like tigers for the goal.''

McCarthy was honored for his columns, including a wry comment from Berman that the gym was ``no doubt a just and noble cause, but with somebody who never lets you forget about this just and noble cause, it forces you to concentrate.''

While pleased with the results, Darion Dubois, co-chairman of the North Hills Veterans Advisory Board, said, ``It's a celebration we didn't have to have; they never should have closed it in the first place.''

Dubois, 64, of Van Nuys said the veterans aren't going away, either. Next on their list, after the swimming pool, is a fight to make sure the veterans who use the Sepulveda facility continue to get services, too many of which have been transferred to the West Los Angeles facility, he said.

``The veterans were soldiers who protected our rights; the VA needs to protect the veterans.''

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color ) After years of lobbying, the new Therapeutic Fitness Center opened Friday at the Sepulveda VA Hospital.

(2 -- color) Veteran Jerry Kirschenbaum checks out the new gym at the Sepulveda VA Hospital on Friday.

(3) Vietnam veteran Clifton Mitchell visits the exercise room at the fitness center at the Sepulveda VA Hospital.

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 15, 2003
Words:553
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