MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - In 2012, Veterans Administration appointed a new Director of the VA Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System. Anthony Dawson manages a staff of more than 2,300 people, a $373 million budget and five facilities from Panama City to Biloxi.
The Prichard native recently shared about the challenges of his job, his dream of working in medicine and the importance of providing care to our military veterans.
"I remember one of the teachers I had, Adele Hall Flanagan. I never will forget her. It's because she invited me to come and sing in the school choir. That gave me an opportunity to earn and start school on a scholarship. Also, from the time I was about 5 years old and watching Dr. Ben Casey on television, for all those who came through during my era may remember that program, I wanted to be a physician," reflected Dawson.
Dawson did not become a physician. However, as Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System which includes the Biloxi Medical Center and its four outpatient clinics here on the Gulf Coast, he's responsible for meeting the medical needs of more than 60,000 military veterans. He said the resources were not available for medical school after college, so Dawson became a pulmonary therapist. Later he sought another career direction.
"I had an opportunity to head to graduate school in health administration. I saw an opportunity to mix health care with business, and that's how it all got started right there," Dawson said.
"With all the bombs that go off, and IEDs and things that these young veterans are facing, we see a lot of limb injuries. We see a lot of traumatic brain injuries as well. Mental health is our highest priority, and mental health comes in under a lot of different arenas. We have a lot of young veterans dying every day from mental health conditions, so making sure that they have access to the care that they need it's always on my mind. That's the biggest challenge," Dawson stated.
In his 24-plus years of serving veterans, Dawson said the VA is now assisting more females.
"We have a tremendous increase of our women veterans. It’s not new, but it is requiring us to look at care in a different way for them because women have special needs. We have an aggressive women's veterans program here," Dawson said.
The Vietnam era veteran is still represented in large numbers in the VA health care system.
"When they returned back to the country, they were not treated as heroes. They were demeaned in ways that we as a country should be indeed ashamed. We realize the error of our past ways, and today we are doing the things that we need for the Vietnam veterans," shared Dawson.
Dawson has high expectations for himself and his staff of more than 2,300 at the Medical Center in Biloxi and the Out-Patient Clinics in Mobile, Pensacola, Eglin and Panama City.
"I believe in our mission and our vision, and I always strive for excellence. It's about being a part of something that's bigger than yourself, wanting to have everything that the veterans have earned and deserve. It's my way of serving those who have served the country so well. I welcome any comments that individuals may have for the VA. We offer the best care anywhere, and I would rather have some individuals out there bringing up concerns than everybody just quiet and you just never know what's going on. It changes your way of thinking sometimes by listening to what their thoughts and concerns are," stated Dawson.
Veterans will see changes under Dawson's leadership.
"A lot more of our partnering with the Department of Defense. The Naval Hospital over in Pensacola, the veterans can now go to their emergency rooms, and we have started utilizing beds, inpatient beds out there at the Naval Hospital. More patient centered care, with the access that the patients need and to give them the care that they want. I'm totally ingrained into what we do for the veterans, and I've been prepared and trained by some of the best leaders to make sure that they receive the care that they've earned and deserve," Dawson said.
Dawson’s appointment in 2012 was historic.
"Well, I really don't feel like I'm a history maker. I've been afforded some opportunities, and I was quick to seize those opportunities and keep the determination of where I wanted to go. The history of it really didn't come to light until recently where looking at a collection of all the past directors of this facility, and I noticed I'm the only African-American that’s ever led this organization. And, only one female has been here in this position, but there are more to come. The times have changed and the best qualified individuals will step up to do the work. I believe the most powerful attribute an individual can have is determination. And I think that you can do anything in this country that you want to, but you have to stay determined, and you have to not give up. When it comes down to history, history it is what it is, but it’s the legacy that you leave behind," Dawson said.
Dawson adds that he feels a lot personal pressure to do a great job for area veterans. Another change he would love to see happen during his tenure is easier access to veteran’s medical records by improving the link between the computers of the Department of Defense with the Veterans Administration. Dawson added that the University of South Alabama Medical Center is also one of the VA's valuable partners here on the Gulf Coast.
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