San Bruno clinic tries to draw veterans 

Sgt. Mark Tarasov, who served in Iraq for seven months, is one person in a small fraction of veterans along the Peninsula who use the VA clinic on Sneath Lane.

"They help you on the spot," he said. "I don’t have to wait for 10 hours."

That’s why, in light of recent scandals involving Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., VA officials are trying to ease confusion as to who is eligible for care and who runs the clinic. While Walter Reed is operated by the military, VA hospitals are run by a different branch of the federal government and intended for civilians who used to serve.

Since its opening in August 2005, the VA San Bruno Outpatient Clinic has seen more than 1,000 patients, a drop in the bucket considering that there are more than 42,000 veterans in San Mateo County. The other 10,000 veterans in the county who are enrolled with VA either go to Palo Alto or San Francisco.

"It still surprises me howmany people come in and say, ‘I just found out that you guys are here,’" Dr. Ronald Strauss said. "It’s a very densely populated area here, and I think it takes a while to get the word out."

However, the number of patients has risen sharply for all VA hospitals since the Iraq war began. At the San Bruno clinic, 48 percent of patients are new to the system. On top of physicals, immunizations and lab work, the clinic offers mental health services.

Tarasov said troops who return from Iraq initially are reluctant to visit a clinic.

"It was very hard to adjust in the beginning," Tarasov, 26, said. "But then you deal with it. You hold everything inside, and that’s why there are some people who have post-traumatic stress. I don’t. But you see a lot of death. It’s not something you see in the real life."

Ronald Hunt, a veteran and a community relations officer for VA Medical Center in San Francisco, said the general public has mixed up the VA system with Walter Reed.

While the Department of Defense runs Walter Reed, he said, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs the VA system.

"We’ve gotten a lot of calls — CNN, ABC, NBC — wanting to know whether we are part of these inquiries and investigations," he said. "It’s sort of like Kaiser and Sutter, two very different entities."

Tony Yaquinto, a Purple Heart recipient and veteran of the Korean War, has volunteered as a liaison since the clinic opened. He regularly visits veterans’ clubs and organizations to promote the clinic.

"It’s not well-known, but it’s going to be well-known," he said. "Most people don’t concern themselves, but they should because most people have a family member who was in the military."

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