Photo | Shane Rice
By Randy Gaddo
Residents living at the William F. Green (WFG) State Veterans Home in Bay Minette are perhaps closer than most Americans to the reason Memorial Day is celebrated — they have all served in the military and many of them in combat.
“I really think Memorial Day is a time to thank veterans who helped save the world,” said Joseph H. McCoy, who moved into WFG a month ago. During World War II the Perdido native served on the USS Chenango, an escort aircraft carrier, during the largest amphibious landing operation in the Pacific Theater, at Okinawa, an island off the southern tip of Japan.
Although McCoy is among the “Greatest Generation” of veterans who, indeed, saved the world from tyranny, he isn’t just talking about his generation.
“I think for today’s generation of veterans it should be the same,” he said, indicating that contemporary veterans and their families sacrifice equally as much.
After the Navy McCoy joined the Merchant Marines and sailed the world. It was on a port call in Italy that he met, “the sweetest girl in the world and I told her that was my last trip, that I’d never leave her at night … we would have been married 64 years in 10 days,” he said.
When WFG resident Ernest Owens joined the Air Force with four of his buddies in 1953, he was fully expecting to go into combat in Korea. He was active in the Junior ROTC program back in his Chattanooga, Tenn., high school.
“Our ROTC instructors were all wounded warriors from WWII and they told us about what combat would be, so we knew what we were getting into,” he said. But Owens was too young and had to wait to sign up and by the time he did, the Korean Armistice Agreement stalemated that war; an agreement that continues today.
“Today’s military is an all-volunteer force and they know what they are signing up for and that takes a lot of courage,” Owens said, noting that his brother volunteered to be a Marine, spent two years in Vietnam and now is suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. “But he just keeps on going, you can’t stop him. He’s in a wheelchair now, but he wanted one of those racing wheelchairs.”
Owens served four years active duty and four more in the Individual Ready Reserve. He said he met his wife, a Foley native, in a Tennessee college and “fell in love with her and the South Alabama area.” After a successful career in organizational management, they retired in Fairhope.
“I think the whole scene on patriotism is diminishing in our country today, but I’d say that the people in the Bay Minette area, really the whole South Alabama area, are the exception; they are very patriotic,” he said.
He discovered the WFG home when he was in a Fairhope car club that would bring gifts and a car show to the facility. “We’d get names of specific individuals here and find out what they needed and bring gifts for them and then do a car show,” he said.
He has been a resident at WFG for three years and gives it two thumbs up.
“I was in a nursing home for a couple months and there’s just no comparison,” he said. “I think the staff here does an amazing job and the community support is exceptional. We meet locals when they come here for patriotic events such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day. They always thank us for our service and while I think that phrase can get overused, my gut feeling is that when people around here say it, they really mean it.”
Larry Slay was in a nursing home in Mobile after suffering a stroke and he wasn’t happy there. The Navy veteran had previously lived in Citronelle and passed through the Bay Minette area countless times on his way to Gulf Shores and didn’t know that WFG was there until a friend told him about it.
“I was miserable in the nursing home,” he said. He was about to just hang it up and go home to try and live on his own even though that would be dangerous due to his physical limitations. “Then I heard about this place. So I came here on a Sunday and they had one opening, but I had to let them know by Monday. I weighed the pros and cons and decided the pros far outweighed the cons. I have not regretted it since.”
He has been at WFG for three years.
Slay was a Navy aviation electrician from 1971 – 1975. He spent 13 months in Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. After the Navy he worked until retirement from Exxon. Not long after that, he had the stroke.
“For veterans, I don’t think you could find a better place than this,” he said. “The staff people here treat us like human beings. The thing that sets this place apart is that everything revolves around the fact that we are veterans. As a resident I feel pride and a sense of humanity.”
Slay believes that outside the walls of WFG, patriotism is not as cherished.
“Children are not being taught today what this country stands for,” he said. “I have all the respect in the world for the men and women who are serving in the military today, but there are too many other young people who don’t have a clue what it takes to defend a country.”
Of the total U.S. adult population, about 1 percent currently serves in the military; by comparison, about 9 percent served in WWII. Only about 7 percent of today’s U.S. adults have ever served.
“Memorial Day is an ancient thing,” Slay suggested. “Ninety-nine percent of the population doesn’t know or care about the military because they’ve never had anything to do with it. But one thing I’ve noticed is that the people who come here, from local churches and veterans service organizations to little school children — they really make you feel appreciated.”
Honoring a sacrifice
Memorial Day is observed the last Monday each May to ensure Americans never forget their fellow countrymen and women who have died throughout history, while serving in the U.S. armed forces to protect and preserve freedoms that are too easily taken for granted. It has become a day for family and friends, baseball and auto racing, hamburgers and cold beverages. However, beyond just a holiday, it is first and foremost a day of remembrance.
There are a number of versions to the story of when, where, how and by whom Memorial Day originated. The seeds without doubt reach back to the Civil War; but beyond that there are many roots that shoot out from the main stem of facts.
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ website notes that about 25 places claim to be the originating source of the holiday. Suffice it to say it wasn’t until after WWI that the holiday was expanded to honor American service members who have died in all American wars.
In 1971 the U.S. Congress officially designated it as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
In 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act (Public Law 106 – 579) was enacted to further ensure that sacrifices made by America’s fallen service members are remembered. The Act encourages all Americans to pause on Memorial Day, wherever they are in the world, at 3 p.m. for a minute of silence.
However, in spite of all the modes urging Americans to remember, of the roughly 330 million U.S. population, an arguably miniscule percentage will choose to attend a Memorial Day service or even stop at any point during the day to give a thought to the sacrifices of those who served.
As pointed out on the U.S. Memorial Day website (usmemorialday.org), “Too many people ‘celebrate’ the day without more than a casual thought to the purpose and meaning of the day. How do we honor the 1.8 million who gave their life for America since 1775?”
It’s a sure bet that the men and women at WFG do not take it for granted. In many cases they have known those who died; in some cases, they themselves bear the seen and unseen scars wars bring.
William F. Green (WFG) State Veterans Home
The 150-room Bay Minette veterans’ home is one of four such facilities currently operating in the state under the auspices of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs with a mission, as their motto delineates, to “Serve Those Who Served.”
The Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City opened in 1989. In July 1995, Alabama opened two more veterans’ homes: the Floyd E. “Tut” Fann State Veterans Home in Huntsville and Bay Minette’s William F. Green home.
In November 2012, the Colonel Robert L. Howard State Veterans Home opened in Pell City. A fifth home was recently approved and is planned for somewhere in the southeastern portion of the state.
Nationally, taking care of those who served has become a substantial business. The Alabama homes are part of a larger network under the National Association of State Veterans Homes (NASVH) with 156 members in 50 states and Puerto Rico.
Like Memorial Day, NASVH has its roots in the post-Civil War era, when the number of veterans needing care overwhelmed the federal government’s ability to care for them.
As noted on the association’s website (nasvh.org), “In recognition of this need and the debt that a grateful nation owed its defenders, a number of states independently established State Veterans Homes for those who had borne the battle.” NASVH was conceived in 1952 to promote legislation at the national level to reflect the mutual needs of all state homes and to share common problems, solutions and experiences.
As noted in the association’s constitution, it exists as a central “clearinghouse for new techniques, best practices and innovations in the care of veterans residing in or being serviced by State Veterans Homes.”
NASVH also has an official Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that is reviewed annually to ensure there is continuous communication between national- and state-level leadership guiding veterans’ care. The state veterans’ homes receive a combination of federal and state funding for staffing, operations and maintenance.
Each state can handle veterans’ home administration in the way that best serves their needs. For example, veterans’ homes in Texas fall under the Veterans Land Board, while those in Missouri are under the state’s Department of Public Safety’s Missouri Veterans Commission.
The homes in Alabama are operated under the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs in partnership with the federal government and private industry. HMR Veterans Services Inc. (HMRVSI) headquartered in Anderson, S.C., contracts with the state to manage day-to-day care operations. The programs they offer cater to the unique needs of veterans.
The company currently manages a total of 10 (with one more on the way) similar facilities in four states: four currently operating in Alabama with a fifth on the way; two in South Carolina; one in Maryland; and three in Texas.
Of the nearly 200 employees who provide around-the-clock coverage at WFG, all are employed by HMRVSI, except for two positions. The facility director, Kathleen Voll, and her administrative assistant are employees of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.
With so many fingers in the pie and so much oversight by national, state and local agencies, one of the most daunting aspects of providing long-term care to veterans are the myriad and constantly changing regulations.
According to WFG Administrator Brian McFeely, “Next to the nuclear power industry, the long-term healthcare industry is the most regulated.” He added that the most challenging part of his time is spent ensuring compliance with regulatory protocols.
There are 158 national standards for veterans’ homes that must be met in order to participate in the program and receive continued federal funding. The VA surveys all facilities each year to make sure they continue to meet those standards.
Veterans are able to combine private, federal and/or Medicare or Medicaid insurance to help cover daily costs; however, their costs are kept nominal due to the augmented state and federal facility funding.
Most state veterans’ homes only admit veterans with honorable discharges or at least anything other than dishonorable. Some states may allow non-veteran spouses and gold-star parents, whose child was killed in service.
While there are similarities between veterans’ care and the mainstream nursing home industry, McFeely is quick to point out significant distinctions.
“This is not a nursing home, it is a veterans’ home,” stressed the 12-year Army veteran who was a combat medic in Desert Shield and later completed the Army’s Practical Nurse Course. “Many on our staff have military experience or have family members with military background. That common experience drives a higher level of respect, care and services.”
McFeely, who has experience in traditional nursing homes, also cites strong community support as a difference.
“The level of support we receive from individuals, churches, schools, political components, businesses, civic organizations and military service organizations is inspiring,” he said.
Another difference is the clientele in veterans’ homes is primarily men, whereas in traditional nursing homes, women dominate. For example, of the 142 veterans currently living at WFG, only three are women. As aging men and women have distinctly different needs, this drives care and service.
“Men tend to be more stubborn and less compliant with medical issues, so that consideration guides our approach,” McFeely said.
However, the most distinctive difference, McFeely said, is that at veterans’ homes, “Everyone here earned the right to be here … we only take those who have been in the military and who completed their service honorably.”
It doesn’t matter if that service was three years or 30 years, whether in peacetime or in combat, the common thread is service.
Donald Salls, 99 ,79th Infantry Division WWII (Photo | Shane Rice)
Donald Salls, a WFG resident for nearly two years, served as a platoon commander in the 79th Infantry Division during WWII. Before joining the Army he was a star football player at the University of Alabama; he is in fact the oldest living former Crimson Tide player as he prepares to celebrate his 100th birthday in June. A former coach at Jacksonville State University, he is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
But going into WWII he was a brand new 2nd lieutenant whose only military experience was ROTC in college. He credits survival during 60 days and nights in combat in France to his salty old platoon sergeant, who had combat experience in Africa and the European Theater.
“I knew I didn’t know anything and he did so I told him, ‘Sergeant, you are in charge. Let me know what you need from me to get the job done,’” recalled Salls. “Those were terrifying days and the nights were even worse. But I listened to him and he got me through it.”
Salls is similar to others at WFG who have endured military life and have seen the horrors of war and lived to tell about it. Perhaps that is the difference in how Memorial Day is viewed by those who have served and those who have not. It is said all veterans signed a blank check made payable to the American public for an amount up to and including their life. Those who survived appreciate life, but they remember those who didn’t come home.
Randy Gaddo retired after 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, followed by 15 years as a municipal director before becoming a freelance writer. He is now a frequent contributor to the Baldwin edition of Lagniappe.
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