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St. Louis Missouri Veterans Home cares for 'a special group of Americans'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2012 - Bright red poppies, fashioned into cheery ornaments, decorate a Christmas tree in the window of the lobby at the St. Louis Missouri Veterans Home.

The tiny satiny flowers are Buddy Poppies -- those symbolic tokens of remembrance distributed by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars every Memorial Day in recognition of the nation’s military who lost their lives in war. Ever mindful of that sacrifice, this home is for the living. It is where Missourians serve those who served: soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who did not fade away, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously said, but are now aged or ailing.

About half of the residents of the 300-bed facility on Lewis and Clark Boulevard in Bellefontaine Neighbors served in World War II, which ended 67 years ago. Seventy-three served in Korea and 63 in Vietnam, according to Stan Smith, administrator of the St. Louis facility, one of seven in the state operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission. More than half of the home’s veterans were in the Army, but the Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard are all represented; 24 are female veterans.

The staff’s mission is unique because of those they care for, said Smith. 

"We get the privilege of taking care of a very special group of Americans -- those who've given us our freedom,” he said.

Service to country is celebrated daily here. Flags representing the branches of the nation’s military hang in the lobby. Many of the veterans have displays of service mementos on the walls of their rooms. On this Friday in December most of the vets were proudly wearing holiday gifts from a veterans charity -- baseball caps designating their branch of service.

Announcements delivered on the public address system begin with a respectful greeting: "Good morning, veterans.”

'The kids are here'

Just before 10 a.m., a veteran in a wheelchair was on a reconnaissance mission in the lobby, watching the comings and goings through the main entrance.

“The kids are here,” he announced, as school buses from the Riverview Gardens School District arrived. He rolled toward the dining room, where several dozen veterans were gathering for the first social event of the day -- a concert of holiday and patriotic songs by fifth-graders from Gibson Elementary School.

The dining room, which is currently undergoing an expansion that will also add a solarium, serves as a social hub for the veterans. Meals are served here for those who are ambulatory, and volunteers and members of the recreation staff hold events ranging from bingo to Friday afternoon happy hours, complete with beer and wine.

George Engemann of St. Louis, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, was sipping coffee as he waited for the concert to begin. A retired truck driver, Engemann said he was battling his way back after being sidetracked by a health issue. He praised the care he was receiving, branding it "real good” and talked about his family. He also displayed a sense of humor, a trait not uncommon in this place. Asked his age, Engemann didn’t flinch.

“I’m 65 and full of bull,’’ he said with a big smile. 

After the concert, the students delivered candy canes and hand-lettered cards to their audience. Engemann’s card had a drawing of a giftbox and tag: "To person who save life.”

Joining Engemann at the table was a new arrival to the home -- Thomas Sullivan, 85, a World War II Navy veteran. Ann Sullivan, his wife of 62 years, had come to visit and accompanied her husband to the children’s performance. 

“Everyone is so accommodating here,’’ said Ann Sullivan. She coaxed her husband into talking about his war experience as a diver whose job was to observe the aftereffects of the atomic bomb testing in 1945 off the Bikini Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Sullivan, who has Parkinson’s disease, spoke slowly and struggled for words at times, but he had no difficulty recalling the harrowing diving operation, a mission for which he had volunteered.

"I was an 18-year-old having fun,’’ he said.

Then she prodded him to relate the story of eating bananas so he could gain weight because he'd been too skinny to enlist. 

Ann Sullivan, a retired nurse, said that her husband had first applied to be admitted to the veterans home six years ago to reserve a place when he needed one.

"We knew the time would come,” she said matter-of-factly, then paused. "It’s more difficult for me than him.’’

The St. Louis facility has a 99 percent occupancy rate and a waiting list with 245 names, Smith said. Some veterans apply for admission before they need the services so they can maintain their status on the list should their health needs change. The most recent wait list times have ranged from 30 days to several months.

'I didn’t want to come here'

Staff barber Tammy Loyd knows knows every resident at the home because she cuts every veteran’s hair at least once a month. 

Every veteran has a story -- or two, or three -- and Lloyd said she loves hearing them. She tries to bring everyone to the facility's barbershop for the social experience, but Loyd works bedside for those who can’t be moved.

"I love it here -- meeting the residents and meeting their families,’’ Loyd said, as she swept up hair clippings.

She found her next scheduled client -- 71-year-old Army veteran Norvell Taylor -- in the dining hall waiting for lunch. He was all smiles as Loyd wheeled him into her shop.

"I love her,’’ Taylor said, as Loyd clipped away.

Taylor also raved about his personal experience at the facility, calling it the best home in St. Louis.

"I didn’t want to come here,’’ he said. "I was wrong.”

Haircuts are included in the monthly charge that veterans pay for basic room and board and health services. The fee -- $1,950 a month -- makes up less than one-third of the total cost of care, which is about $220 a day a veteran, said Smith. The balance is covered by per diem payments from the Veterans Administration and tax revenue from the state of Missouri.

The financial status of the veterans homes was in the news last spring during state budget negotiations because of concerns that the homes’ trust fund had fallen to about $17 million. The fund had $80 million in 1999.

Larry King, executive director of the state Veterans Commission, had warned that without a steady, dedicated source of annual funding the trust fund could be depleted by July 2013. Lawmakers eventually voted to divert more money from the Missouri Gaming Commission Fund to the homes -- a law that Gov. Jay Nixon signed in a ceremony at the St. Louis facility on May 31. The move was not without criticism because the diverted funds had been earmarked for early childhood programs. 

"More than 1,300 of Missouri's veterans rely on our veterans homes for outstanding care and medical services," Nixon said about the new law. "We must honor their sacrifice by ensuring that they receive the quality care they need and deserve.’’

'You need to talk to Bob'

They call themselves “the crazy table,” and they are quick with the jabs and one-liners.

William Holtsclaw, 78, an Army veteran who served during the Korean War, had pulled his scooter up to the table. He has lived at the home since February when he says he realized he could no longer make it on his own. He rattled off a list of ailments that landed him here: emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, sleep apnea, arthritis.

"Other than that, I’m in perfect health,’’ he said, with a grin.

He has few complaints about the place, save for one: the food.

"Too much chicken,’’ he said, eyeing his lunch.

"It’s a good place,” he added. “They bend over backward here. But everybody’s got some complaint.”

Holtsclaw said he appreciates the many activities that keep him from getting bored between visits from his family and friends.

Holtsclaw said that he and his dining pals were recruited by Dorothy Brandemour, 90, who was keeping a watchful eye on her table. Brandemour, who served during World War II, said she joined the Navy because she couldn’t join the Marines. She worked as as a diplomatic courier.

"I won the war,” she said, her eyes dancing, when asked about her military duties.

How long has she been in the veterans home?

"Too damned long.”

Do you mind being photographed?

"I don’t take good pictures. But they’re always in demand.”

Brandemour said she tries to arrive first in the dining room to save a table for "my boys.” Holtsclaw said his job is bring everyone at the table a towel-like drape they wear to catch stray crumbs.

"I’m the bib man,’’ he said, with a big grin.

Jokes aside, Brandemour turned serious for a moment.

"You need to talk to Bob,’’ she said. "He’s a hero.”

Brandemour was referring to Robert P. Doerr, who had been quietly observing the banter. Doerr served in both the Merchant Marines and the Army. Six decades ago, he was a sergeant in Korea, charged with seeing his men through battle. In his room, which is decorated with personal mementos, he keeps a well-worn scrapbook -- his personal war history told in small black and white pictures of places with names like Inchon and the Punch Bowl. Some of the smiling faces in Doerr's picture album never made it home.

But Doerr, who served as an alderman in Bellefontaine Neighbors for 37 years, also likes to talk about happier times, including his travels to far-off places with the Merchant Marines or on vacations with his late wife.

As he walked to his room, Doerr mentioned that in his younger days, he volunteered at the home. It seems that almost everyone he passes knows him by name. Their greetings follow him down the corridor: "Hi, Bob.’’

Bingo! Volunteers spread cheer 

At the St. Louis Veterans Home, the activities are varied. Those who are able might take a shopping trip or spend an afternoon at a casino. The home's recreation staff organizes a variety of socials and activities, including crafts -- and gardening in the summer. On this afternoon, veterans could play bingo for dollars with the Florissant Elks.

Smith, the administer, credits the local community for playing an active role at the home. Employer-sponsored groups, veterans service organizations and private individuals -- including some young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- rack up about 2,400 volunteer hours a month – a number that nearly doubles during November and December.

"We have some type of volunteerism occurring in significant numbers here seven days a week,’’ he said.

Bill Reiter, chairman of the veterans committee of the Elks, said he has a core of volunteers who help to run the bingo games, a regular event at the home. They bring snacks and sodas for the veterans and award cash prizes of $2 to $4.

For Reiter, an Air Force veteran and retired Boeing employee, volunteer work with the veterans comes naturally.  The amount of activity at the home is impressive, he said.

"There is stuff going on here everyday day of the week,” he said.

Veterans helping veterans

At 4 p.m., registered nurse Katy Schaffner was making her rounds, knocking on every door, peeking in on veterans in their rooms -- making sure she had "eyeballs on everyone.”

Schaffner, 32, is an Air Force veteran, who was deployed multiple times to Oman and Qatar. Shaffner, who has worked at the veterans home for two years, is assigned to the 100-bed dementia unit. Working with Alzheimer’s patients is a job that she says "just felt right” after graduating from nursing school.

Schaffner believes that her military experience helps create a bond with the veterans she cares for.

"Their eyes always light up when I tell them I’m a veteran,’’ she said.

Vivian Sanders, a recreation staffer, says she tries to help the veterans with dementia recognize something familiar – to find that "it’s not gone.”

Being from a military family has been helpful, said Sanders, whose late husband was in the Air Force.

"I love the vets,’’ she said.

Smiles today; chili in January

For Mary McFerron, 88, living at the veterans center is a bittersweet experience. While she feels that she has some things in common with her fellow veterans, she said that she has struggled with giving up the independence of living on her own.

"Life changes,’’ she said. "This is a big change.”

McFerron, a World War II Navy veteran, gives high marks to the staff and the variety of activities available.

"Everybody knows my name,’’ she said, a tone of surprise in her voice.

McFerron added that she would like to see more fresh vegetables -- and Romaine lettuce -- on the menu.

"Everything has been good so far but for the overcooked vegetables,’’ she said with a smile.

McFerron might want to discuss her lettuce preferences with Megan Martinez, director of recreation, who fielded a similar menu request from Air Force veteran Jerald Drewel, 71.

When Martinez asked Drewel for his thoughts about the veterans home, Drewel didn't hesitate: He would like to see Taylor’s Mexican chili -- a specialty of Carlinville, Ill. -- served in the dining room.

After a quick web search, Martinez discovered that the chili parlor sells online. She promised to organize a Taylor’s chili social in January.

“She’s fantastic,’’ said a smiling Drewel, motioning toward Martinez.

Mission accomplished. 

Martinez said that she and her staff are mindful that they are serving those who served.  

"My goal every morning when I come to work is to make sure that I provide as much activity -- and living -- for each and every one of the veterans,'' she said. "That way, they go to bed with smiles on their faces.''

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