David Gallibeau is a King Street haberdasher with high blood pressure who had a stroke and couldn't afford insurance. At age 62, his income slipped with the economy, as did his health.

"Insurance companies don't like me," said Gallibeau, who was spending a lot of money for doctor visits and prescriptions.

Then he discovered the VA.

As a young man, Gallibeau served a hitch in the Navy as a radarman. His friends said he just might qualify for benefits through Veterans Affairs. He decided to check it out.

"This has been a godsend," said Gallibeau, who works for Jos. A. Banks Clothiers. "They told me they were here to serve me, that my visits would be $50 and my prescriptions would be $8 each."

Gallibeau was astonished. He'd grown up thinking VA hospitals were grim places where old soldiers went to die. His experience at the Ralph H. Johnson Medical Center on Bee Street changed that in a hurry.

'Overwhelmingly impressed'

To be sure, the VA earned its reputation in the past. People waited all day to see a doctor. There was no such thing as customer service.

All that changed 15 years ago when the model shifted from simply treating the wounds of war to a true wellness program.

Today, the VA is a sparkling, bustling place where thousands of veterans are treated for everything from minor injuries to major surgery. From valet parking to state-of-the-art physical therapy and psychological services, the VA is fulfilling the promise made to those who served. And it's practically free.

So what's the catch?

Eligibility rules are complex, but suffice it to say if you served in uniform, you're a veteran. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are fully eligible for five years after service. Beyond that, costs depend upon your income.

To inquire, call 1-800-827-1000 or online at www.va.gov.

"The VA offers more than I even dreamed of," Gallibeau said. "I was overwhelmingly impressed. It's just amazing that everybody's so nice."

Loud and clear

Dr. Florence Hutchison, chief of staff at the Charleston VA, has seen the changes firsthand.

"I remember the bad old times," she said. "But it's been an incredible ride over the past decade to be part of an organization that has evolved so tremendously from something that was probably second- or third-class care to the premier health care organization in the world."

Her point is backed up by the fact the Charleston VA is ranked 10th overall among the system's 144 hospitals and second for its quality of medical care in the country.

"It's all about accountability and responsibility," Hutchison said. "Those are the two important concepts that moved the VA forward."

Nobody appreciates that more than Gallibeau, who now understands the true value of his military service.

"I want everybody to hear this loud and clear," he said. "If you did time with Uncle Sam, the VA is there for you. It's not just for looks. It's there to serve the men and women who served this country."

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598.