Residents can vote for name on new VA clinic in Middleburg
By Nick Blank Staff Writer
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The design of a Veterans Affairs Clinic in Middleburg is nearing completion and construction is scheduled to start this summer.
All that’s left is finding a name for it.
Veterans and community leaders learned of the clinic’s features last Monday at the county’s supervisor of elections office. And five local veterans who were there greeted the new with tears and applause.
The lease for the 20,000-square-foot clinic on 400 College Rd. was announced last August. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-3) who has spearheaded efforts at the federal level, said every update on the clinic is the fruition of a dream that started five years ago.
Clay County has about 30,000 veterans, with 11,000 enrolled in the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System. The clinic will have mental health services, primary care, lab draws and other services from telehealth, according to VA officials.
“The goal is to make sure veterans have access to care and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this community,” Yoho said.
Chad Adams, North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System assistant director, said the VA had recently received the 75 percent design drawings. The property has 135 parking spots. Adams added that the new clinic and put less pressure on other systems and cut commute distances to other VA facilities such as Gainesville or Lake City.
The first candidate for the building’s name was Marine four-star Gen. Roy S. Geiger, 1885-1947, of Middleburg. His story was presented County Commissioner Gayward Hendry, who served in the Marines.
Hendry said Geiger is referred as the father of Marine Corp. aviation because he developed tactics that are still being employed today. Geiger flew in France during World War I.
Hendry said Geiger didn’t garner the attention of other generals, but he commanded the 1st Marine Air Wing at Guadalcanal and was the commanding general of the First Amphibious Corp, which he led in Guam, Okinawa, Bougainvillea and Peleliu in World War II. Geiger was also the senior Marine on the deck of the USS Missouri when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
“He was a man of very strong character, that’s why we in the Marines revere him,” Hendry said.
Chief Petty Officer Andrew Baker’s nomination was presented by his wife, Tina Baker. He was killed in 1997 during a training mission in North Carolina while his HH-60H helicopter was trying to refuel on the frigate USS Taylor.
All four of the crew based out of NAS Jax perished in the crash.
Andrew Baker, of Middleburg, was a search and rescue swimmer who trained over 300 pilots and 100 air crewman, Tina Baker said. She said her husband’s death wasn’t in vain. From the crash, the U.S. Navy learned more about night vision, lighting on frigates and Andrew Baker trained several helicopter pilots who later served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tina Baker said she was honored her husband made the cut and she wanted his name to be remembered.
“A lot of men on those missions [in Afghanistan and Iraq] I can tell you they were trained by my husband,” Tina Baker said. “His legacy still lives on today, my oldest son Chief Andy Baker, thank God, he just came off the teams. He did six tours in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. He always had that vision of following in his father’s footsteps.”
The third candidate was U.S. Air Force Col. William G. Byrns of Fleming Island, the namesake of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Byrns was a prisoner of war at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for more than 300 days, enduring torture after he was shot down in Vietnam. The colonel later flew missions during Operation Desert Storm. He was the keystone speaker at the county’s first Vietnam Veterans Day Ceremony in March.
Vietnam veteran Gary Newman served multiple tours there and was on the USS Maddox during the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Newman was inducted in the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame last year.
“[Byrns] didn’t give up,” Newman told the audience. “He’s a good American hero.”
The fourth name eligible for voting was that of U.S. Navy pilot and Jacksonville native Scott Speicher, the first American casualty of the First Persian Gulf War in 1991. Speicher was 33. His body was not recovered until 2009.
Walter Smith, from Mobile, Ala., was a firefighter on the USS Saratoga who knew Speicher. After 22 years in the U.S. Navy, Smith is now a chaplain for Veteran Enforcers Motorcycle Association.
“It was a hard time on the ship because he was the first casualty of the war. We were on the flight deck when his squadron came back and he didn’t come back,” Smith said. “[Speicher] always had a smile on his face. Everyone said he was an upbeat person who loved his family. All in all, he was a great man. All of these are great men.”
The final nominee was Lance Cpl. William F. Thompson. His entry was read by his son Trevor. William Thompson, who was in the audience, was involved in Operation Dewey Canyon on the Laotian border of Vietnam. On Feb. 16, 1969, his unit was ambushed, and he was shot in both arms and the chest.
“For more than 18 hours he laid on the jungle floor hanging on to life, he survived that night with the help of a Navy corpsman,” Trevor Thompson said. “The next morning under the canopy of heavy fog, Lance Cpl. Thompson was one of the few men who survived the night.”
William Thompson spent the next few weeks on a hospital ship and the recovery process took years. When he returned home and was discharged, Thompson worked in the automotive industry, as a small business owner and volunteered in several veterans’ organizations.
“Without the healthcare services from the VA, he likely would not be where he is today,” Trevor Thompson added.
To vote, call Yoho’s office at (352) 505-0838 for a voting access number, or by visiting or calling the Clay Supervisor of Election Office at (904)269-6350. The link to vote is bit.ly/2DOnnqT. Voting is restricted to Florida’s Third District. Yoho will announce which nomination received the most votes on May 30.