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VETS GET MORE BAD NEWS ON CLOSING OF GYM.

Byline: Dennis McCarthy

The heat got turned up Thursday on the controversial closing of a popular veterans' gym at the Sepulveda VA in North Hills.

A deal to keep the gym open until Oct. 31 fell apart when Philip Thomas, the new chief executive officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said he got some new, disturbing information. He learned Wednesday of a 1997 structural engineer's report expressing concern that the gym was still in use after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake damaged it structurally.

``We knew there were safety issues, but I didn't know until yesterday that the same engineers who checked it after the earthquake came back in 1997 and were surprised to learn the gym was still in use,'' Thomas said shortly after meeting with Democratic Rep. Howard Berman at his Mission Hills office.

``I didn't realize the extent of the damage,'' Thomas added. ``This building should not have been in continuous use all those years.''

Both Berman and Rep. Howard P. ``Buck'' McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, have been trying to find ways to keep the gym open for the veterans who, as I reported Tuesday, are angry that the gym is being shut down instead of repaired.

Many of them credit this old gym where they come every day for exercise and camaraderie with keeping them alive - mentally and physically.

The vets have scheduled a protest for 9 this morning on Plummer Street in front of the Sepulveda VA, renamed recently the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center and Nursing Home.

``The guys are going to go through the ceiling when they hear this,'' said Don Starler, an Army vet who helped collect the signatures of more than 200 vets petitioning the VA to keep the gym open.

``These guys have been in harm's way most of their life,'' he said. ``What's the difference now? The gym's been open more than five years since the earthquake, and there have been plenty of shakers with nothing happening.

``You think we're worried now? No way. This is just a bunch of double talk to close the gym and save money,'' Starler said. ``It has nothing to do with the safety of the vets.''

David Foy, a spokesman for McKeon, said the congressman still was requesting that Thomas honor the extension until Oct. 31 to give the vets more time to study VA plans for a fitness center that would have exercise equipment and weights but no basketball court or swimming pool, like the old gym.

Berman, after meeting with Thomas, said he ``could not in good conscience second-guess'' the structural engineers' report that the gym should be vacated, but he understood why the vets were upset and skeptical.

``These are guys who have had promises and commitments broken constantly,'' Berman said. ``That's why it's important that he (Thomas) now wants to form an advisory committee of vets to bring them into the process.''

Thomas confirmed he would be putting a group of vets together to help design and equip a planned Veterans Wellness Center in another building that will be available for use in about a year.

In the interim, a temporary workout room will be made available for the vets in another building, he said.

``The mistake we made was not communicating well with the veterans, so we helped create this situation,'' Thomas said. ``The lesson we learned is to communicate better. We're not out to take things away from them.''

The vets, though, remain unconvinced.

It was six months ago that Todd and Sherry Connolly, parents in their mid-30s, were killed in a Saugus motorcycle accident, leaving behind six young children.

This Sunday, Sept. 19, the first in what is intended to be an annual Helping Angels Run will be held to start a college trust fund for the kids, who range in age from 8 to 13.

``They're so thankful that their parents' friends and co-workers care enough about them to do something like this,'' said Eve Connolly, a step-grandmother.

The event will be held at Canyon Meadows, 41600 Lake Hughes Road, in Lake Hughes, from noon to 9 p.m.

There will be six bands performing and plenty of games and food, with 90 cents of every dollar raised from the $35 adult ticket and $15 child's ticket price going into a college tuition trust account for the children when they each turn 18, said even coordinator Bob Goebel.

And, finally, don't forget the National POW/MIA Recognition Day candlelight ceremony tonight at 7 at the Granada Hills Veterans' Memorial Park, at the corner of Chatsworth Street and Zelzah Avenue in Granada Hills.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 17, 1999
Words:770
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