The Wilmington VA Medical Center Serves Local Veterans

Since 1950, the Wilmington VA Medical Center has cared for the health of the region’s veterans.

Like many peacetime military enlistees, Marcellus Beasley looked to the United States Air Force in 1988 as a place where he could put his healthcare background to work, get an education and travel the world on the military’s dime.

But that period of relative peace wouldn’t last. In 1990, under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi military invaded tiny neighbor and major Persian Gulf oil producer Kuwait, throwing the entire region into turmoil and prompting an international military response and a human-rights crisis among Iraq’s minority Kurd population. Beasley was deployed from his medical station in Ankara, Turkey, across the border with Iraq as part of a team assigned to set up and run an Air Transportable Hospital (ATH) in northern Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort.

Andre’ Wright Sr. served in the Army during conflicts in Panama, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. He makes it a point to share with other veterans—particularly those who are homeless or struggling—the extensive list of benefits they likely qualify for through the VA.
Andre’ Wright Sr. served in the Army during conflicts in Panama, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. He makes it a point to share with other veterans—particularly those who are homeless or struggling—the extensive list of benefits they likely qualify for through the VA.

“I paid attention in training, so I felt very confident going over not knowing what we’re going to see, not even knowing that we could set up the ATH from soup to nuts,” Beasley says. “I mean, by the time we were done, it was a fully operational hospital—beds, oxygen, everything. And we did that within a day or so. Then it was just business as usual until we got casualties.”

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Marcellus Beasley served in the Air Force during Operation Provide Comfort. Thanks to the PACT Act, which became law in 2022 and pertains to veterans exposed to dangerous chemicals or substances during their service, he receives full benefits through the VA.
Marcellus Beasley served in the Air Force during Operation Provide Comfort. Thanks to the PACT Act, which became law in 2022 and pertains to veterans exposed to dangerous chemicals or substances during their service, he receives full benefits through the VA.

“Business as usual” in the Gulf War, however, meant hazards that previous generations of airmen, soldiers, Marines and Navy personnel had not faced—black plumes of burning crude oil from rigs destroyed as the Iraqi army moved through and burn pits filled with toxic chemicals among them. Beasley spent 90 days in Iraq under such conditions.

When he separated from the Air Force in 1998, he went to work for then-banking giant MBNA, which recognized the leadership potential of veterans and put him on the management training track. His job provided generous benefits, so he never felt compelled to make use of those available to him through Veterans Affairs and Wilmington’s VA Medical Center in Elsmere.

Air Force veteran Valerie Harwood was stationed at Dover Air Force Base. She used the GI Bill to earn her bachelor‘s degree in journalism. She now works as the public affairs officer for the Wilmington VA Medical Center.
Air Force veteran Valerie Harwood was stationed at Dover Air Force Base. She used the GI Bill to earn her bachelor‘s degree in journalism. She now works as the public affairs officer for the Wilmington VA Medical Center.

Then in 2000, at age 37, Beasley suffered a heart attack. Although the insurance through his job handled most of the costs, a family member strongly encouraged him to visit the VA and find out if he was due any benefits from there. He was pleasantly surprised during his first visit when he learned he qualified for 30% disability compensation based on his service.

Then in 2022, Congress passed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which expanded VA benefits and healthcare to military personnel who were or presumed to have been exposed to toxic substances as part of their service in Vietnam, the South Pacific, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Working toward awareness

Talk to a veteran who hasn’t applied for VA benefits—or thinks they would be ineligible—and you often become aware of a pattern, Beasley says. There are those like him who left the service and went into good-paying jobs with health benefits. Others see their fellow veterans with much more serious injuries or health concerns and decline their own VA benefits because they’re worried they’ll somehow deny other veterans what they’re due.

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“I’m so independent that when I went to the VA for any of my appointments, I saw people who were really a lot older than me because I had my heart condition when I was 37. And so when I did go to the VA, there’re Vietnam veterans in there, what I call the ‘real, real’ veterans,” he says. “And so I almost felt guilty going there because I’m like, well, I’m all right. I had my heart thing and I’m good now and I’m in shape and I’m a personal trainer and all this kind of stuff. But my mom said, ‘You’re entitled to whatever you’re entitled to and you can’t look at it like you’re taking anything. It is something that you’re entitled to.’”

Army veteran Mark Taylor works at the Wilmington VA Medical Center as a patient advocate, helping veterans navigate the VA healthcare system. As a former Army recruiter and VA outreach worker, he considers his current role helping patients get the best possible care as coming full circle from his recruiting days.
Army veteran Mark Taylor works at the Wilmington VA Medical Center as a patient advocate, helping veterans navigate the VA healthcare system. As a former Army recruiter and VA outreach worker, he considers his current role helping patients get the best possible care as coming full circle from his recruiting days.

Eligibility for some level of benefits is open to nearly everyone who has served in America’s armed forces and didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge. Benefits can include everything from free or subsidized healthcare to mental health services, home loans or funds for education through the GI Bill. Based on years of service, income, disabilities sustained while serving and a variety of other factors, the VA designates a percentage of benefits someone is eligible to receive.

For many veterans now, however, that percentage is no longer applicable. Based on where and when they served, the PACT Act often grants full health benefits. Those who served in the window between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Persian Gulf conflicts have different eligibility.

Potential benefits include health care, disability payments, VA loans for home purchases, and the GI Bill to pay college tuition and other education expenses.

Under the PACT Act, Beasley, who today works for a Newark security firm, receives 100% of his VA benefits. He even represented veterans issues in a visit to the White House in 2023, but he notes that without that initial visit after his heart attack, he wouldn’t have set himself on a path that has helped him tremendously.

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“A lot of things—educational benefits, housing, a lot of things that we’re entitled to have—I didn’t have an idea at all [about],” Beasley says. Although members of the military are briefed on information including the VA before their separation dates, Beasley says there wasn’t much emphasis on the benefits available when he left the Air Force.

“So, a lot of times it takes someone to reach out to you to kind of let you know that you do have these benefits,” he says. “But now the VA has come a long way since I first started back in the day with awareness. They have a lot of different things that they do now that make veterans aware of what benefits they have and what they can utilize.”

Valerie Harwood, Wilmington VA Medical Center’s public affairs officer, knows the value of understanding her veterans benefits. Formerly stationed at Dover Air Force Base, she attended Wesley College in Dover thanks to the GI Bill, which led her first into a civilian job as a teacher, then to graduate school and a career in public relations.

Prior to her current role, she worked in veterans outreach, educating recently separated veterans and those who served decades ago about what was available through the VA, focusing on the financial and health benefits of seeking care through the Wilmington VA.

One of the biggest challenges is communicating with eligible veterans, Harwood says. The Wilmington VA covers all three counties in Delaware, plus Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties in southern New Jersey, so there’s a constant outreach effort through Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) branches, community events like fairs and festivals, and more.

“Our teams are really good at working with community partners and getting those events set up,” she says. “I think some of the challenges are those rural areas. We’re trying to get messaging to those veterans, but not just [them],but also their family members. So, if they have that veteran that‘s not mobile, but their family members hear about this, a lot of the family members are reaching out and getting information and taking it to their veteran family members.”

Mark Taylor, a patient advocate for the Wilmington VA, is an Army veteran, former recruiter and past member of the VA outreach team. He’s seen the challenges of connecting with veterans up close and admits that it’s due in part to an outdated image of the VA.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey, listen, we’ve made strides and changes. There are different ways to qualify. Now come back and give it a chance,’” he says. “And I meet so many people who are like, ‘Man, thank you for bringing me back into this. This is life-changing.’

“It’s more of a full healthcare rather than out in the regular world or regular healthcare plans, which can be tough to navigate. Here, everything is kind of combined. We utilize the community as well. So, if someone’s in southern New Jersey or southern Delaware, if they’re using their [VA] clinic and it can’t be done there, and it’s far enough that they wouldn’t want to drive here, we will let them utilize the community care as well. So, the VA will pay for their visit to Beebe or Christiana or whoever it may be.”

A history of care

The 336-bed Wilmington VA Medical Center, situated on 32 acres along Kirkwood Highway in Elsmere, was completed in 1950 and has served as the VA’s hub for the six-county Delaware and South Jersey region ever since. In addition to providing healthcare, the facility’s grounds include a 40-bed Community Living Center, a residential nursing facility; the Outpatient Clinical Addition, a 66,000-square-foot facility to provide outpatient care; a VA Benefits Administration office; and full accreditation as a cancer center.

According to the Wilmington VA’s 2022 annual report, the health center had 1,229 admissions, performed 3,947 surgeries and saw 8,053 emergency room visits. As the main point of contact for VA enrollment, the site added 41,668 new applications to the VA rolls.

Recognizing the changing face of the American military veteran and the challenges they face while in the service and out, the Wilmington VA has adapted with the times by focusing more on women’s health (women make up 11% of new enrollees) and diversity and inclusion, adding Barbara Gibbons, the center’s first LGBTQ+ veteran care coordinator.

Accessing what’s been earned

When working with newly enrolled veterans, Taylor emphasizes to those who might be reluctant to access the benefits they’re due: “This is the most expensive healthcare in the world because you paid for it with your name on a dotted line and your sacrifices to this country.”

But, says Beasley, there’s still often a lingering sense of guilt among many veterans that using their benefits will somehow take away from another veteran who might need help more.

Army veteran Andre’ Wright Sr., whose son shot the photos for this story, enlisted in 1979, just four years after the official end of the Vietnam War. During his 15-year service, the Wilmington resident saw action in Panama, Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and the Bosnia/Croatia conflict after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He lived in Italy and Egypt and traveled throughout Europe. As a native of Durham, North Carolina, he says he’s seen and done things he never expected.

But his service came at a cost. He’s lived with cracked third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his cervical spine that wasn’t diagnosed until after his retirement. And while he utilizes the resources the VA provides as he pursues his own expanded benefits, he’s become something of an evangelist for the agency, particularly with those who are obviously struggling.

“The ones that I really try to talk to, they’re homeless,” Wright says. “I talked to one yesterday [as] he was eating out of the trash can. I was like, ‘Look, man, the VA can do it for you.’ And some people say, ‘I ain’t got time.’ But we suffer with a lot of post-traumatic stress. And I tell people we’ve been through something that nobody else would ever want to go through it, but it’s awesome. And I’m so happy that we have the VA to help us after that.”

For more information, visit the United States Department of Veterans Affairs at va.gov or 800-698-2411.

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