The Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald is traveling to Los Angeles to sign the draft master plan for the West LA VA campus on January 28 after months of advocacy by local veteran leaders to get their peers’ voices heard against a backdrop of wrangling between the city’s power brokers and politicians. The action comes nearly a year after the VA won a ruling to reassume control of the sprawling campus near Santa Monica that has suffered several decades worth of encroachment by non-VA organizations and inattention by the VA itself.

In 1888 John P. Jones and Arcadia B. de Baker signed a deed donating 300 Acres of West Los Angeles land to be used by the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (the precursor to the Department of Veterans Affairs) as their Pacific branch home. Over the next 127 years, the property lost it’s original focus and suffered at the hands of ineffectual government authorities who let the facility fall into disrepair and conniving interlopers from a host of organizations including a major university, an elite parochial school, and even other government agencies who wrangled large parcels for their own use (and nothing to do with veterans healthcare or well-being).

But in January 2015, VA Secretary Bob McDonald signed a settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit (Valentini v Shinseki) regarding encroachment on the campus of the facility. The agreement established a nonprofit, Vets Advocacy, to serve as a partner in the West LA VA master planning process. As the first step of that process, Vets Advocacy petitioned the veteran community for inputs on how they’d like to see VA services provided.

Vets Advocacy created a website, www.vatherightway.org, as the primary tool behind their mission.  The site allows veterans to find out about the history of the West LA VA campus, see the schedule of local town hall events, watch video testimonials of other vets, and — most importantly — take the survey regarding how the campus should be modified to better serve patients and the veteran community at large. In the period leading up to the creation of the draft master plan, more than 1,300 surveys were completed.

“The vets stepped up to the plate,” said Mike Dowling, We Are The Mighty’s director of outreach and a major force behind organizing veteran inputs on the master plan.

“The master plan is wholly informed by vet input,” said Vets Advocacy’s Dr. Jon Sherin, who ran mental health services for the West Los Angeles VA hospital. “Now Secretary McDonald is signing into law the guideposts by which all decisions regarding that land will be made.”

“The plan is not just historic for the amount of comments, but for what this represents,” Army vet Michael Cummings writes on his blog. “This plan represents the possibility to change the VA from being a hospital or housing shelter into a community that brings veterans together. The veteran leaders I’m working with don’t just want to make the VA function better, we want to build a community of veterans and work with the VA to improve the lives of the people who fought and sacrificed for our country.

“Even better, we know that we are creating a model for the whole country. Our efforts in Los Angeles are providing a blueprint for other VA campuses around the country for how to to turn from being simply a hospital into a community.”

Although getting Secretary McDonald’s signature on the draft master plan is an important milestone, the work towards realizing the promise of the document is far from over, and veteran input remains fundamental to the effort.

“The core theme among vets taking the survey was the need for a vet-driven governance structure for the community being developed on that land,” Dr. Sherin said. “We have to keep the vets’ voices alive and clear.”

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