As a young man, Michael Folonis witnessed some of the darkest parts of war.
He was drafted in 1967 and went into the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. 1968 and ‘69 took Folonis to Vietnam as a radio operator with the 15th Combat Engineers in the Mekong Delta.
He was present for some brutal incidents that stuck with him. Over the decades, intrusive memories of the most disturbing events would play over and over in Folonis’ head. For most of his life, he suffered these ripple effects of war without treatment.
“I felt that no one would understand if I told them about it,” he said. “And you know, I’m not interested in telling war stories.”
Finally, in 2015, Folonis’ life came to a turning point: his anger was escalating, he had no friends, and his wife pleaded with him—he had to get help, or their marriage was in trouble.
So he relented, and started getting care at the PTSD clinic in Building 256 on the West L.A. VA campus.
“It took me 47 years to go to the VA, but I’m so glad I did,” Folonis said. “There were people there that understood what it was like because they were there.”
He soon joined a regular group therapy session on Tuesday nights.
“The group is my shelter. It’s the only friends I have,” Folonis said. “And I didn’t know any of them before the group. They’re my brothers now.”
But lately, he's worried: the VA has informed the PTSD clinic it will be moving from its longtime home to a new building on the other side of the 388-acre campus.
That’s because the Los Angeles VA, where Folonis attends group and individual therapy sessions, is in the process of overhauling its huge plot of land in West L.A. between Brentwood and Westwood.
Part of the plan is to move all medical care to the South side of the grounds, below Wilshire Boulevard, and build a new ‘town center’ with 1,200 units of supportive housing for homeless veterans on the North side of campus.
To make way for renovations, a number of buildings will have to be cleared out and occupants relocated.
That includes Building 256, home to one of the oldest PTSD clinics in the nation. It served close to 1,800 veteran patients last year.
RAISING THEIR VOICES
The VA says this is a logical step that will consolidate mental health services in one place, improve patient care and increase access to treatment for a wide range of veterans.
Folonis and his fellow patients in Building 256, however, say this is not like relocating a normal doctor’s office.
Veterans who are part of the tight-knit community of the clinic say uprooting them could damage the program—and they’re asking to stay put.
At a recent town hall, veteran after veteran stood up to express their worries over the plan to move the clinic from Building 256 to a new spot: Building 401.
“This isn’t just a building to us. This is our home. And I speak for a lot of veterans in the back there who are part of my group,” Jay Lopez said, to cheers from the audience.
A co-founder of the clinic, Jim Dwyer, also spoke up at the public meeting. He’s a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat, and he’s worked with PTSD patients for 43 years.
“We’ve been told we’re moving to 401. That will ultimately destroy our program,” Dwyer told a range of VA administrators at the forum, including the Greater Los Angeles VA Medical Center director, Ann Brown.
“IT FELT LIKE A SCHOOL”
Vietnam vet Gerald Saldo recalled how his professional life in Hollywood faltered due to the effects of the PTSD he suffered after serving three tours on a Navy cruiser.
“I flew off the handle and it was not necessary,” Saldo said. “And at times I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
His primary care doctor at the VA referred him to the clinic in Building 256. Saldo said he was immediately drawn in by the building’s 1940s-era Spanish Revival design—big and inviting, with large meeting rooms for the 40 different groups that meet there weekly.
“To me it felt like a school. I had been to college, but this felt like a university,” Saldo said. “A fraternity.”
Veterans who spoke to KPCC said the new building, 401, has a different feel. It’s adjacent to the main VA hospital, and it has the boxy, institutional style of a medical facility.
“It’s not conducive—as far as I can tell—to the way we have been using the [Building 256] facility,” Saldo said.
Other practical concerns about the new building: veterans claimed the rooms in 401 are too small for their group sessions, and the walls are too flimsy for privacy.
“THE FOCUS IS ON VETERAN CARE”
The VA turned down KPCC’s request to interview Jim Dwyer for this story, and would also not allow this reporter to visit the current PTSD clinic or the new Building 401 location. The agency cited patient privacy concerns.
It instead directed questions to Dr. Shana Spangler, the section chief for PTSD in the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
Spangler was clear: the change in location is meant to help veterans. Moving the West L.A. VA’s mental health services to one place, South of Wilshire, will make things more convenient and ultimately better for patients.
The new location will also allow the agency to expand services, including to survivors of military sexual trauma.
“The program right now focuses solely on combat veterans. We want to make sure anyone that has experienced any kind of trauma in the military gets access to the same level of care,” Spangler said. “The focus is on veteran care.”
Spangler said they’ve found meeting space in the new building large and private enough for group sessions—and group therapy isn’t going away.
But she acknowledged this move is coming at a time when VA recommendations have de-emphasized groups. Spangler said clinical guidelines released last year recommend individual treatment for PTSD.
“But it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “So I think it’s not a matter of, we’re only going to have one thing or another, it’s let’s figure out what works best so we best meet the needs for the veterans.”
A SENSE OF SAFETY
Spangler says her team has brought leaders of the PTSD program into the process to try and make the new Building 401 environment feel more like home.
She understands this is a delicate situation, particularly for the population of veterans who rely on the VA’s PTSD care.
“With trauma we oftentimes see that a sense of safety has been disrupted and a sense of trust,” Spangler said. “So, what we want to do is, since these veterans have been working with these providers for such a long time, to be able to connect with those providers to help best meet the needs for the veterans.”
Michael Folonis doesn’t think moving patients and service providers to Building 401 is the right move to fit the needs of veterans. And multiple veterans who shared their stories with KPCC said they feel like they’re being shuffled around with little communication from the VA.
They want patients who use the clinic to have the ability to weigh in on decisions affecting their care.
“It’s a Veterans Administration, but yet they’re not listening to the veterans who they’re supposed to be serving,” Folonis said. “It seems like it’s the wrong kind of attitude.”
On Thursday evening, the VA held a hearing at its Medical Center in Brentwood to discuss the search for a Principal Developer to oversee the effort to build 1,200 units of housing for homeless veterans on the campus.
A wide range of issues came up during the public comment period, including traffic, community safety, and relocation plans for the PTSD clinic in Building 256.
Army veterans Raul Aguiar and Arthur Gonzales showed up to voice their support for the clinic staying where it is.
“A lot of change is going on behind our back,” Aguiar said, “And our counselors don’t know either. They can’t tell us anything because they don’t know.”
“People are making these decisions willy-nilly without even asking the people who are going to be affected by these decisions,” Gonzales said.
In response to questions, VA administrators announced they have scheduled a meeting for PTSD patients and clinic staff to discuss the relocation. That’s slated for May 8th.
Leslie Martin, director of the PTSD Outpatient Services Team (POST) in building 256, spoke up to ask for clarification about the timeline of renovations, and implored the VA to consider the role the PTSD clinic could play as part of the new ‘veteran village’ planned for the North side of the West L.A. campus. Clinic co-founder Jim Dwyer also attended the meeting.