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San Diego VA renamed after female combat vet on eve of 50th Anniversary

Fifty years after it opened, the San Diego VA will become the first VA named after a female veteran of color. KPBS Military Reporter Steve Walsh has the story.

Fifty years after opening, the San Diego Veterans Administration medical center will become the first Veterans Health Administration facility to be named after a female veteran of color.

March 15, 1972, with the Vietnam War winding down, the San Diego VA Hospital opened its doors in La Jolla. Dr. Arnold Gass remembered that first year.

Courtesy of San Diego VA Hospital
The San Diego VA hospital in La Jolla, Calif. in 1972.

“So I first walked into this building on October 2, 1972," Gass said. “It had been open for seven months as an emergency because of the fact that the Sepulveda VA had suffered damage from an earthquake.”

Gass is an emeritus professor of internal medicine at UCSD, who still teaches at the VA. The San Diego VA has always been both a research and a teaching hospital, built on land adjacent to the University of California San Diego. Construction on the $35.5 million, 811-bed hospital began in 1969.

Before 1972, San Diego veterans used the Naval hospital or were sent to VA hospitals north of the county. Back then the challenge was to adapt to Vietnam vets who saw the VA as an extension of the war effort.

Army 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno
Courtesy of Department of Defense
Army 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno is shown in this undated photo.

“But Vietnam veterans have come here,” Gass said. “Special programs were instituted as a result of them, the Agent Orange program, the notion that environmental hazards are problematic for veterans, and these things have all evolved out of the agitation and the political presence of the Vietnam era veterans.”


Post-911 veterans are again forcing another change in the system. The day before the 50 year anniversary of the San Diego VA, President Biden signed the bill naming the hospital for Capt. Jennifer Moreno. The 25-year-old Army nurse who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. Gass said the symbolism is significant.

“It will be a place where people should remember why it’s called a veteran’s facility. And why we need to take care of veterans of all types, all genders, all gender choices. That's what's going to happen for me.”

This group of vets are 20% female and more diverse. The VA has been struggling to convince female veterans that they are welcome at the VA.