Originally Published: March 18, 2015 11:23 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Clinical psychologist and veteran Cameron McKinley's drive to deliver mental health treatment to Vietnam combat veterans required a non-traditional approach.
He went so far as to arrange meetings with veterans in local parks and coffee shops, anywhere but at the veterans' hospital - the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System - where he was chief of psychology from 1981 to 1996, according to leaders of the Prescott Vet Center on Stillwater Drive.
The stigma attached to mental health trauma was so acute that veterans preferred to suffer in silence than be treated in a traditional medical setting, they said.
"He was a very down-to-earth person, and very sensitive to what it meant to be a veteran," said Patsy Ray, co-chairman of the Friends of McKinley, who have arranged a dedication ceremony at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 28, to rename the federally sanctioned and funded center in his honor.
McKinley died in October 2013.
McKinley quickly recognized if he was to reach a broader range of Vietnam veterans suffering from such illnesses as post-traumatic stress syndrome, he needed to find a place away from the main hospital campus where they would feel safe to come for treatment, Ray said. He wanted to offer veterans the ability to share with peers and families so as to build stronger bridges of understanding and support, she said.
"He was literally a pioneer in that effort," said Ray of McKinley, who served in the U .S. Marines from 1947 to 1949 and the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956.
On his own dime, McKinley opted to do more than wish. He opted to act, center leaders said.
Bolstered by the post-traumatic work he was doing with Vietnam veterans - one of his therapy groups organized a Vietnam Veterans of America chapter - McKinley traveled to Washington, D.C. to talk with the state's Congressional delegation about opening such a place. His efforts led to Congress authorization for 91 rural veteran centers.
The Prescott Vet Center at 3180 Stillwater Drive opened in June 1985. The opening ceremony dedicated the center to Yavapai County resident and U.S. Navy Commander Dennis Pike, a pilot who went missing over Laos in 1972.
Pike's family will be traveling from Los Angeles to attend the renaming ceremony on Saturday that will again also recognize Pike's service and sacrifice to this nation, said event co-chairman Kenneth Hall.
As for McKinley's continuing contributions to the center, he served as the VA consultant from its opening until his retirement. After that, McKinley volunteered at the center until he and his wife, Anne, relocated to Colorado in 2005.
McKinley's devotion to veterans never stopped.
In retirement, McKinley served as a National Park Service guide at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and was a volunteer interviewer for the Veterans History Project in Prescott that is now filed in the Library of Congress.
In recognition of that devotion, some members of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in 2010 opted to rename the center for McKinley, Ray said. What they discovered was that federal facilities cannot be named for a living individual, so the effort was delayed until just after his death, she said.
In July 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the legislation that allowed the official renaming of the Prescott Vet Center so that is now the "Dr. Cameron McKinley Department of Veterans Affairs Center."
His widow, Anne, said she welcomes the opportunity to celebrate her husband's life work.
"When I think of this clinic being named for him, and how it happened, and by whom, it gives our whole family a sense that he accomplished what he set out to accomplish because his patients are the ones who wanted this to happen," Anne McKinley said as she choked back tears she expects she will shed freely on Saturday. McKinley also noted hat she welcomes the opportunity to also celebrate the life of Commander Pike.
Though her husband had numerous chances to take more prominent positions in larger cities, Anne McKinley said her husband's desire was to be where he could interact daily with patients.
"He set out to work with these veterans; to be part of their finding a way to some peace."
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci