An artist rendition of the $50 million state-of-the-art research and care facility for veterans , set to open in 2018.

Help Is On The Way For Veterans in Arizona

Lee Allen

It isn’t always the big guys who make the most noise. The tiny Cocopah Indian Tribe in Arizona (Kwapa or River People, who, at best, represent only about 1,000 members) traditionally live quietly along the lower Colorado River delta near Yuma. They now have a reason to be making some pretty big noises of their own.

The tribe, under the auspices of Cocopah Enterprises LLC, and in partnership with private industry, has announced plans to build a $50 million state-of-the-art research and care facility for veterans to focus on traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and treatment for victims of military sexual trauma.

This is big business for a tribe that only half a century ago still inhabited traditional weed-thatched homes along the riverbank. Although described as ‘non-materialistic,’ the Cocopah formed a five-person Tribal Council in the mid-1960s and began efforts at economic development. Veterans Neurological Research Center represents their most expansive effort yet.

Once the tribal partnership with Yuma’s Medical Management Group was decided, the project underwent nearly a year in preliminary design before choosing as its site, a tribally-owned 200,000-square-feet, now defunct K-Mart building, that will be expanded. The building, once one of the largest K-Marts in the nation, has been empty since 2007. The Cocopah tribe purchased the property in 2008 for $9 million as an investment. Then the market crashed.

“When the economy went south, we held on to the property knowing it was meant to be used for great things for our community,” says long-time Chairwoman Sherry Cordova. “Throughout the years, various proposals were presented, but none seemed the right fit. This project was what we must have been waiting for because it will benefit so many and provide a boost for our local economy. We are confident that this is the right decision after all these years.”

Construction is slated to get underway in January 2017 and will take an estimated 250 construction workers about 14 months to complete.

The Center will offer 300 beds for dementia and 200+ Extended Stay units for families dealing with traumatic brain injuries suffered by a family member. The Center will employ over 400 people when fully staffed through a variety of jobs ranging from doctors, nurses, and therapists to researchers, lab techs, IT personnel, and support staffers.

Patients under treatment will also be a part of on-going research studying changes in neurological function, chemical modifications, brain mass changes, nerve-ending function and genetic changes.

Unique to the project is what has been termed by Yuma TV reporter Maya Springhawk Robnett as, “a self-contained Dementia Village.” VNRC will be laid out as a four-acre indoor village patterned after places and things familiar to those who lived through the 1950s era. Because the center’s elderly patients have trouble relating, this will be something familiar with caregivers garbed as general store employees, postal workers and ordinary village-goers.

According to tribal Economic Development Officer Gary Magrino, the design includes a ceiling motif that simulates the sky at sundown and sunset when Alzheimer’s and dementia patients frequently have trouble relating to their environment.

“The uniqueness of the concept is getting a lot of attention, but our main focus remains on young vets with TBI’s,” says Richard Neault, Manager of the Medical Management Group.

It’s a needed service as 16 million Baby Boomers are predicted to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by 2050. The partnership announcement follows on the heels of a 2015 Washington D.C. summit on traumatic brain injury organized by the Veterans Affairs Department that called for more research into TBI.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald urged attendees to provide expertise and experience to build on advances that VA had already had made. “We need you to tell us what resources you need for VA to be nationally and internationally acknowledged as the leader in TBI research, diagnoses and treatment,” he said. A department study has already discovered that older veterans with a TBI have a 60 percent greater risk of developing dementia than older vets without the injury and McDonald noted: “It’s important to have ways to accurately predict long-term effects of the injury to make sure resources are available when needed.”

While veterans-in-need are breathing a sigh of relief that such a help facility is coming on-line in the foreseeable future, the Yuma business community has extended a warm welcome. “Yuma already benefits from business travel related to military and agriculture issues and we anticipate there will be a high degree of interest from the medical profession with this innovative facility and its research,” says Linda Morgan of Visit Yuma.

If everything proceeds on schedule, a massive Open House is planned for spring 2018.

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