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 / Updated  / Source: Associated Press
By The Associated Press

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — Perched atop a bluff in the remote Black Hills, a veterans hospital built of thick blocks of pink sandstone and topped with red-tiled roofs in a Spanish mission style overlooks the tiny town of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and has provided recovering soldiers a bucolic haven for more than a century.

Wounded warriors from Civil War battles at Antietam and Gettysburg came to the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for brief, intensive treatments for musculoskeletal and respiratory conditions. Physicians believed the dry air and warm, fabled mineral springs helped mend broken soldiers. Today, veterans from the Vietnam to Iraq wars suffering from ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse recuperate at this quiet retreat.

But this long tradition could soon end. Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs have proposed shuttering the campus and relocating some of its services 60 miles north to Rapid City, the second-largest city in the state, leaving only an outpatient clinic in Hot Springs, which the state calls "The Veterans Town."

The Veterans Affairs Black Hills Health Care System in Hot Springs, S.D., was formerly known as the Battle Mountain Sanitarium.Benjamin Brayfield / Rapid City Journal via AP

One of the key issues driving a wedge between the VA and the veterans fighting to keep the hospital open is its remote location. Does the isolation and serenity of Hot Springs help heal patients or hold them back?

"We have not seen any evidence that proves serene environment versus a more city-like environment changes the outcome of the patients," said Jo-Ann Ginsburg, the acting director for the VA in the Black Hills.

But many of the region's veterans argue that the tranquil environment in a town of 3,500 people is just as crucial to healing today as at the beginning of the 20th century and cannot be replicated outside Hot Springs.

VA officials counter that moving the services north to Rapid City would help attract physicians, better accommodate female and single-parent veterans and link patients with job opportunities and occupational training.

The VA anticipates a final report recommending the best course of action to be announced in the spring of 2016, according to an internal VA email provided to The Associated Press.