Bill Woods lay flat on his back, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
The former infantry sergeant had survived a few toursKorea and Vietnam, not to mention a long stint in the Cold Waras well as a busted marriage. After his years in the service, he had operated a dry-cleaning business in his native Cambridge, Mass. He had sold it in the mid-’80s, and, not being the sort to retire, he took to tending bar at a local watering hole near Harvard, the Abbey Lounge. It was the most enjoyable job he’d ever had; his customers ran from working-class regulars to Tip O’Neill dropping by for a glass of white wine.
Walking home from work that day in 1991, Woods felt his leg seize up and couldn’t go on. It turned out to be arteriosclerosis, a circulatory disorder that ran in his family. Surgeons cut a vein from his arm and transplanted it into his leg, in a two-operation procedure that temporarily saved his limb but ended his bartending days. Recovery came slowly, his foot turned blue, and doctors feared they might have to amputate. Nearly a year went by.
For the first time in his life, Woods was utterly helpless, and he realized he had to face the cold facts of old age. At 61, he’d already buried his mother and fatherand he had no children of his own for support or comfort as he approached that final impasse. More importantly, he didn’t want to burden his last living relative, his sister, with such matters. “That was the lowest point of my life,” he says. “I was living alone, unable to earn a livelihood, with the possibility of losing my foot, and I was too proud to ask for help.”
Confined mostly to a couch, he waded through all the junk mail he’d never had the time to read. In an Army newsletter, something caught his eye: an item about the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington. Back in his service days, he’d heard about the Old Soldiers’ Home, as everyone called it. Like all enlisted men and women, he had contributed a percentage of his salary every month to the home, funded exclusively by military personnel.
He’d already been mulling a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C., where he hoped to get some expert advice and treatments for his bum foot. Now he had even more reason to head south, so he took a train down. “I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna fight this sonofabitch. I’m entitled to medical treatment, and I’m gonna do everything within my power to beat this.’”
Sickly patients from the Soldiers’ Home are frequent visitors at Walter Reed, and at least one former old soldier is a permanent resident. Behind the hospital, the National Museum of Health and
Medicine features a bizarre exhibit in its “Hall of Horrors”: a skeleton of a veteran of the Spanish-
American War who spent his last 15 years at the home. It was by no means a pleasant stay. The man suffered from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that slowly fused his joints together. During his final, excruciating years, he remained paralyzed in a sitting position; the disease also locked his jaws shut, so doctors had to knock out his teeth in order to feed him. The skeleton now remains propped in a chair, its skull marked by a gaping hole that recalls Munch’s The Scream. Fascinating stuff for medical history buffs, but not exactly the best promo for the Soldiers’ Home.
The little that Woods knew about the home wasn’t promising. Back in ‘Nam, it had come up once in a conversation at the mess hall, and Woods had been impressed. “It sounds like a pretty good deal,” he recalls saying. But his colonel had offered another view on the matter, telling about when he and two Army buddies took a late-’40s trip from Fort Mammoth, N.J., down to Washington to see the sights. They had gotten lost and ended up on Upshur Street NW, outside a wrought-iron gate crowned with golden eagles. Along the gate leaned a row
of derelicts drinking out of paper bags. They were residents of the Soldiers’ Home, which at the time
prohibited alcohol on its grounds. Mostly battle-
ravaged World War II vets, these men proved that not everybody had come home to parades and a paradise made possible by the GI Bill.
Now, with his foot starting to heal, his future in limbo, and the colonel’s story on his mind, Woods went to see for himself. He could hardly believe what he discovered. Behind those gates was a verdant oasis in the middle of the city, a 140-year-old institution unknown to most except neighbors and those who worked there. Perched on a hill that offers a view of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument in the distance, the home was actually a sprawling, 320-acre pastoral estate with an astonishing variety of trees ablaze in autumn foliage. “I said, ‘Holy Jesus, this place is great. Why the hell am I not living here?’” recalls Woods. “I had thought it was going to be a homeless shelter.”
Few first-time visitors fail to experience a similar awe. The place resembles some sort of landscaped Valhalla, a warriors’ heaven boasting private rooms and daily bus trips to Atlantic City. Its architectural centerpiece, the Sherman Building, is a sky-high, bright-white gothic-revival fortress designed by the architect of West Point, echoed by its own circular stone tower nearby. The Sherman Building’s belfry boasts a carillon that chimes on the hour and plays patriotic and seasonal music. Even the old hospital is lovely, modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Then there are the golf course and the two fishing ponds, flanked by trees native to countries around the globe where soldiers have seen action.
It was all Woods needed to see. Within a few months, he had moved into his new home.
Six years later, Woods remains a contented resident, but the Soldiers’ Home has fallen on hard times. The downsizing of the military combined with escalating health-care costs has some playing “Taps” for the beleaguered home. Officials have been forced to close two dormitories to save on maintenance costs. They’ve cut employees and services; most importantly, they’ve cut residents, causing the population to plummet from almost 2,000 to barely 1,100. And as the World War II generation gets older and older, a waiting list for admittance grows ever longermany will not live long enough to see their names finally come up.
But the challenges from within are not what has the home’s residents feeling most wounded. Catholic University covets a 49-acre parcel for an expanded campus and for church-related facilities. Soldiers’ Home officials have long been counting on this valuable property not for a one-time sale but for a leasing arrangement, so the land can be developed for a steady flow of revenue. Last October, though, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) made a flanking maneuver and sneaked an amendment onto the defense-spending bill that would force the home to sell to the Archdiocese of Washington.
The predicament has infuriated residents, many of whom, like Woods, are Catholic. They see in this brazen attempted land grab the final insult after a careerlong series of broken promises. “When I joined the Army, they promised us lifetime health care, and now it costs me $154 a month,” Woods says. The Soldiers’ Home has become the only thing residents can count on in a terminally fickle world. They have paid the price, not only in risking their lives for their country, but chipping in money for the home, which has never cost taxpayers a cent. Now their final refuge is in jeopardy. “When they needed us, we were there,” says Woods. “Now we’re not needed. We’re all in our 70s. We’ve been used up and our youth is gone, and here our safe haven comes under fire. This is our home, and as far as I’m concerned, this is sacred ground.”
Not every soldier is welcome at the Soldiers’ Home: No felons or four-star generals need apply. You’d better have earned the right to be here. The home is for enlisted men and women only, and only if they fall into one of the following categories: vets with 20 or more years of active-duty service, at least 60 years old; vets unable to earn a livelihood because of a service-related disability; and vets who served in a war theater and are unable to earn a living due to injury, disease, or disability.
And none of this matters if you can’t walk through the front gate. Residents must be capable of independent living. That means being ambulatory and aware enough to make it from your room to the mess hall and around the grounds. Once you make it into the Soldiers’ Home, you’re set for life. Whatever fate befalls youAlzheimer’s, a stroke,
cancerthe home will take care of you all the way to the grave.
More than 90 percent of residents are retired career military, and more than 95 percent served in combat in at least one war. The home is for the average GIs, the grunts who followed orders and did the dirty work all around the globe from D-Day to the Bataan Death March to the Tet Offensive. There aren’t many battles or debacles or hellholes in modern times that they haven’t borne witness to. Yet many of the most compelling first-person sagas remain stubbornly privatesigned, sealed, and undeliveredlost to history.
“Take a look at that guy,” says resident Wilfred McCarty. A man speed-walks by, poking a scrawny bald head from a billowing windbreaker to issue a furtive greeting before he turns around a corner. “Now that is a fascinating story, but he wouldn’t want to talk about it. He’s Hungarian, and he was brought up when the Russians were there, so he learned Russian in school. Anyway, he swam across the river into Czechoslovakia without any clothes on. They did that so they wouldn’t have any identification on them. Now that is really starting life over with absolutely nothing.”
A resident of the Soldiers’ Home for 30 years, McCarty is a jaunty 75-year-old, a self-described gypsy who’s always lugging a backpack stuffed with papers, maps, and books. With his dark, heavy spectacles, snow-white goatee, and bolo tie dangling down his unbuttoned tropical shirt, he’s like Col. Sanders on some hippie trip.
Back in ’43, McCarty was a farm kid from Nebraska when he joined the Army. At the Battle of the Bulge, he was wounded by a German tank shell; some shrapnel is still inside him todayenough to trigger airport security alarms. While being treated in a field hospital, he remembers, he heard the doctor telling the chaplain, ‘This boy’s not going to make it.’ After further medical operations in England, he returned to the front in a box car, the same kind the Germans used to send victims to the death camps. In April ’45, he was in the first American unit to reach and liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp, where more than 110,000 were put to death, mostly political prisoners, and at least 38,000 Jews.
After liberation, inmates were still dying at a rate of 100 a day, and bulldozers dug trenches to bury the dead. McCarty has related his experience at Mauthausen many times, in his own way of bearing witness, to try to prevent it from happening again. But he says he’s never been able to fully articulate the horrors he saw. Once, during an interview for Belgian radio, he broke down when he recalled how some starving Czech schoolgirls had apologized for their appearance. “They wanted us to know that they used to dress nice,” says McCarty. “We gave them blankets, and they started making clothes out of them.”
After his retirement from the military in the ’60s, McCarty continued his travels, visiting Russia twice and China three times. He uses the Soldiers’ Home as his base as he plots his next expedition. The Orient and Mexico are his two favorite places, and his adopted town runs third, with Sholl’s Cafeteria topping the list as his favorite hangout. “The city I know best is Tokyo, but probably next is Washington,” he says.
Like nearly 70 percent of the residents, McCarty has never married. The only spouse he has ever known is the military. When he first came to the home, he lived in Grant Hall, a gargantuan, Renaissance-revival stone building with mosaic-and-
terrazzo floors that took more than a decade to construct at the turn of the century. Grant residents shared six-bunk squad rooms, so there wasn’t much in the way of privacy.
Now McCarty has his own room in the Scott Building, an eight-story, ’50s-era, hotel-sized dormitory where the majority of the residents live. His small but comfortable nook affords a view of the Washington Monument. “When they asked me if I wanted to move from Grant, I wanted to because of the [private] toilet, but I didn’t really want to move,” he says. “But when I looked out the window and saw the monument, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’” The walls are plastered with colorful wildlife posters and a world map thumbtacked in clusters at all the places McCarty has visited: 150 countries and counting.
The Grant Building closed down two years ago because it had become too costly to maintain. It sits empty now, mute as a tomb. Its closing is only part of the overall effort to salvage the home in the wake of military downsizing. For decades, the place has been supported not only by monthly deductions from active personnel but by disciplinary fines. But since the early ’90s, the military has lost 800,000 service personnel and $5 million from its payroll. And because so-called 8-balls and other chronic troublemakers were among the first to lose their jobs, the revenue stream from fines and forfeitures has slowed to a trickle.
After nearly a century and a half as a self-supporting institution, the home has confronted the ugly prospect of impending bankruptcy. “In 1991, the projected date of insolvency was 1998,” says Laurence Branch, co-chair of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) board, which oversees the Soldiers’ Home and its sister institution, the U.S. Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss. “We’ve done a variety of things to control our expenditures, so we’ve pushed off insolvency to 2004 or 2005.”
In addition to massive reductions in services and personnel, dorm closings, and the like, there have been drastic measures that have cut even closer to the bone. Residents have been forced to begin paying their own wayan arrangement that was not part of the original bargain. They now contribute 35 percent of their incomes; in October, the figure goes to 40 percent. But these measures haven’t been enough, and the home remains roughly
$9 million a year in the hole.
To generate money, AFRH officials have contemplated several options. Congress has authorized an increase that would double the paycheck deductionto $1but so far the Pentagon has yet to approve. If that scenario fails, the adjacent 49-acre property remains the home’s best wild card for survival. Congress has given the board permission to dispose of the property “by sale or otherwise.” Officials want to lease the land for commercial development, which they estimate would bring in $4 million annually. But Sen. Santorum’s amendment requires that the land be sold at fair market value to “a neighboring nonprofit organization.” The only such neighbor is Catholic University.
“It’s like if you were selling your house, and somebody tells you, ‘That’s fine, but you have to sell it to this person,’ and they’re the only one who’ll bid on it,” says Branch. “How likely is it you’re going to get the best price for your house? That’s essentially the circumstance we’re in.”
After Santorum was beset by complaints from veterans’ groups and fellow members of Congress, he agreed to a six-month moratorium on the volatile issue. (Ironically, Santorum’s home state, Pennsylvania, has the country’s fifth-largest population of veterans.)
The Archdiocese of Washington argues that the university needs the land to expand and that there is no other neighboring property available. Its position has received support from D.C. Councilmembers Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5). But church officials have also said they would consider leasing, instead of buying, the land. Soldiers’ Home officials claim that the property is essential to its survival and have outlined a development plan for a rental property that would generate nearly $50 million in long-term revenue, much more than the home would gain from a one-time land sale.
“We’re not asking for tax dollars,” says Branch. “We’re asking that Congress take our handcuffs off….Unless we have the second 50 cents from the active-duty folks and the ability to generate revenue from the excess land, we are at risk of financial insolvency and closure.”
If that happens, many residents will literally be left out in the cold. Most are simply retirees and do not qualify to join their disabled comrades in V.A. homes. They subsist on fixed incomes that would put them in a precarious situation out in the real world.
Most of the residents are well aware of their predicament. McCarty is already planning his own escape route, if necessary. “If I ever leave here, I would go to Mexico,” he says. “I’d probably go to the Lake Chapala area. I have a friend down therehe’s a retireeand he says, ‘In the States, I’m a nobody, but down here, I’m somebody.’ They treat the seniors so nice.”
Legend has it that in the late 1840s, Gen. Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War, was riding in a carriage past Lafayette Square in downtown D.C. when he spotted some ragged men sleeping on the ground. After being told they were Mexican War vets, the hulking, bewhiskered commander got down from the carriage and, towering over his former soldiers, promised he would find them a safe haven. In fact, attempts had been made to create a soldiers’ home for decades but had never made it through Congress. A new bill to establish a home was introduced by then-Sen. Jefferson Davis and approved by Congress in 1851. An “asylum for old and disabled veterans” was soon opened, its start-up funds coming from the $150,000 that Scott had demanded in tribute from Mexico City in lieu of ransacking the defeated capital.
The site chosen was the Riggs estate, a hilltop farm of more than 500 acres, one of the highest spots in Washington. Soon the place was filling up with residentsthen known as inmatesmost veterans of the Mexican War. In June of 1852, a veteran appeared at the asylum carrying the following note: “Private John Corkin, aged 55 years, late of Company H, 5th Infantry, who has served 18 years, born in Ireland, a single man, who has served in the Black Hawk, Florida, and Mexican Wars and incapacitated for further military service, as stated on the certificate of Ass. Surgeon King, is entitled to admission to the Military Asylum.”
Pvt. Corkin was issued his uniform, a dark-blue frock cloak and trousers. His typical day began with “Reveille” at 5 a.m. To and from meals, he marched in formation, and the military regimen dictated the daily activities. As a war vet, he was entitled to $8 a month. He probably spent most of his time in idleness, smoking a pipe or listening to a professional “reader” giving details of current events from a newspaper. Corkin remained in the home until May 1875, when he died in the asylum hospital. He was buried in the adjacent cemetery with full military honors.
During the Civil War, the Soldiers’ Home played host to President Lincoln, who used the Riggs mansion as a summer White House. In a second-floor bedroom of the early-gothic-revival cottage, Lincoln composed the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. He is said to have often sat under a large copper beech tree in the yard, reading and writing while his son Tad climbed in the branches overhead. In 1865, Lincoln’s wife, Mary, wrote to a friend: “How dearly I loved the Soldiers’ Home.” The tree has grown ever larger in the ensuing 100 years, and its massive branches have rooted to form a double canopy that is a favorite resting spot among residents.
The home remained a busy place in the next half-century, as the U.S. engaged in more than two dozen foreign conflicts in the period leading up to World War I. During this era, most of the main facilities were built, including Grant Hall, the original Scott (now called the Sherman) Building, the Rose Chapel, and others; their presence still lends the grounds its 19th-century architectural grandeur. Despite Jefferson Davis’ tireless, crucial efforts on behalf of the asylum, no buildings (or anything else) on the grounds are named for the Confederate president, still considered a traitor by many. A statue of Winfield Scott was erected on a prominent bluff overlooking the Capitol and the National Mall.
From the early 1900s on, the prime real estate of the Soldiers’ Home began to attract attention. The surgeon general tried to get land for a hospital twice, before and during World War I. The Navy wanted the hilltop location for a wireless station. A local organization demanded an expanse of Soldiers’ Home land for a playground. A pair of businessmen sought a site for a tourist attraction that would feature a panorama of the battle of Gettysburg. Soldiers’ Home officials held their ground and refused all these requests.
Soon, though, the tide shifted, and the home acreage began to recede, as the outside world moved ever closer. The District received parcels for road-widening projects, first for Michigan Avenue and then for North Capitol Street. In the ’40s, the VA nabbed a sizable chunk, and its hospital now sits where the home’s dairy farm once was. Later, the home sold 24 acres to nearby Trinity College, which resold the land for apartments and retail development.
Meanwhile, the Soldiers’ Home entered the modern age with a vengeance, emerging as a self-contained city. In those days, it was better known than it is now, to both service members and the public. When men were discharged from the Army, they received a train ticket to either their hometown or the Soldiers’ Home. Facilities continued to spring up: The Forwood Building was a sprawling, double-winged hospital that offered long-term care. To combat drunkenness and vagrancy fueled by the four taverns outside the gates, an on-grounds lounge opened in the late ’50s. Officials relaxed the military atmosphere: no more uniforms, no more sergeant’s whistle before you could sit down to the table in the mess hall. There were a post office, a bank, a golf course, two new chapels, two fishing ponds. In the ’50s, women were accepted as residents, and even married couples, as long as both spouses met eligibility requirements.
By the ’80s, the home had all the amenities of a civilian retirement center and then some: an arts and crafts center, a painting studio, a fitness center, a six-lane bowling alley, even an auto repair shop where residents could tinker on cars. The home’s private bus took residents on daily excursions to the Smithsonian, the Laurel racetrack, and local shopping malls. And many residents kept their own vehicles parked on grounds, so they could come and go as they pleased.
It was this Soldiers’ Home that Bill Woods fell for. He moved into his own room in the Sheridan Building, a co-ed facility. He had finally gotten his reward for all those years in the service, shivering in the cold of the Korean mountains until his rib cage was sore, pulling all-night guard duty in Germany during the Cold War, surviving two tours in Vietnam, not to mention nearly a decade of 70-hour weeks running the dry-cleaning business in Cambridge. For the first couple of weeks, he slept late and stayed in bed, even though he’d recovered limited mobility. “Suddenly, there I was retired, and I thought it was going to be ideal. I thought I’d be happy as hell. No more responsibilities, no more aggravation. Instead of being happy, I got goddam bored to death. I felt like I was put out to rot away.”
Instead of slinking out the gates, he got off his ass and stayed busy. Woods started volunteering in the White House mailroom annex; now, he and a crew of residents are responsible for the huge amount of letters addressed to presidential pets Socks and Buddy. “Socks gets way more mail than Buddy,” he says. “No contest. Cat people are much more the letter-writing type.” He also got a part-time job at the public information office in the former Riggs house, now known as the Anderson Cottage. He receives calls from prisons, homeless shelters, and especially women calling for their husbands. “When it’s the wife calling, I know she’s going to dump the poor guy,” he says.
Woods says that the melancholy goes with the territory. “Every day at 4:40 p.m., the flag comes down and they play ‘Retreat,’ the bugle call. Every military institution in the world does that. You more or less condition yourself to thatit’s around chow time and everything. One day I got a call from this girl, and she said, ‘My grandfather’s in the Soldiers’ Home. He’s been there four days and I’ve been talking to him on the phone. He’s depressed, he’s alone, he’s a widower, but what really depresses him is when they play that bugle call. Can you do anything about that?’ I said, ‘Christ, this has been a military tradition in every army. Hell no, I can’t do anything.’ See, he’s in the Old Soldiers’ Home because his family dumped him here.”
Those who watch from a distance as assets are sold off need to know that the Soldiers’ Home is all the residents have, says Woods: “A lot of these guys were just laborers and farmers; they don’t have much of an education. Now they’ve been used up by the service, and now they’re old. What are they going to do? Start from scratch again? No way. So thank God that there is a haven like this that they can come to, because you want to go out with a little respect and dignity.”
One resident found refuge at the home after livingpneumonia-stricken and friendlessunderneath the 14th Street Bridge. He’s in his own world most of the time, but he can take care of himself. He recently got reprimanded for taking three dozen pieces of cornbread from the mess hall, aiming to feed to the pigeons. Woods knows that, when all is said and done, he’s got a lot more in common with this guy than not.
“It’s my home, and I don’t have any place else to go,” he says. “Except to go live with my sistershe’s my last living relativeand that ain’t gonna happen. I’ll move down under a fucking bridge.”
The oldest soldier died last night. Her name was Beatrice Montreuil, but everybody called her Bea. At her death, which surprised no one, she was more than a century old. Born in 1897 in New York City, she served as a medic in World War II and in the Korean War, and retired in 1963 from Walter Reed. One of the first female residents, she lived at the Soldiers’ Home for three decades. During her tenure, she made the journey that many here will eventually take: First she was in the Sheridan Building. Then she went “down the hill” to assisted-living quarters and finally long-term care. In recent years, she was wheelchair-bound while ferociously pursuing her three remaining hobbies: bingo, crossword puzzles, and hunting for loose change in the coin-return slots of pay phones and vending machines.
“She wasn’t really sick sick,” says Rick Langford, chief of recreational therapy. “She was just burning down. You could see it. Her battery finally burned out after 101 years.” Langford says he knew that Bea’s time wasn’t long because she provided a sure-fire sign: “She hasn’t seen her husband in probably 60 yearsshe walked out one day and never went back. In 11 years, I’ve never heard her mention his name, period. Last week, she was falling asleep, and [an employee] says, ‘I think I’ll take you on up, OK?’ and she says, ‘OK, but I need to check on my husband.’ When I heard she said that, I knew that Miss Bea was getting ready to go. It’s one of those things that happens: They see ’em coming. They’re gonna see ’em again, I guess.”
Miss Bea’s name went up on a bulletin board that hangs outside the mess hall in the Scott Building. Whenever a resident dies, an obituary appears in this glass-enclosed, wood-framed case, formally called Final Retreat. Tacked on the notice is a small photo of the deceased. Around mealtimes, residents gather at the board to see if they recognize any of the faces peering out. The hometowns of these fallen soldiers also appearThomaston, Ga., Akersville, Ky.each more obscure than the last, mythic-sounding hamlets where the U.S. military found human fodder for a century of war.
More often than not, there are no surviving relatives. Who is left in these far-flung places to remember the dead? Often, the only public memorials residents receive begin and end with the Final Retreat.
The obits in the glass case are just one of many nagging reminders of death’s dominion here on the home’s grounds. Nearly every day, it seems, the flag flies at half-staff, announcing yet another burial with full military honors in either Arlington National Cemetery or the Soldier’s Home burial ground, a bucolic, gated cemetery across the street.
“Yeah, somebody died,” says William McLaughlin, staring grimly at the flag, once again lowered halfway down the pole that stands in between the Sherman and Scott Buildings. It is a cold, windy day, and the gusts on this hill are whipping the Stars and Stripes into a frenzy.
“Old soldiers never die; they just blow away,” he says, adapting Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s famous adage. “You know, we Marines hated MacArthur.”
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, McLaughlin was a 19-year-old gunner stationed at an airfield about two miles away. The Japanese bombed the aircraft carriers in the harbor at 8 a.m., and a few minutes later, they attacked the fleet of dive bombers nearby. “I had just finished breakfast and had come out of the mess hall and lit my first cigarette of the day, and here comes an airplane that was completely out of the regular flight pattern. There was a water tower right back of the mess hall, 30 or 40 feet high, and he had to pull up to miss the tower, and when he did, here’s the gunner in back, and I waved at him, and he grinned and waved back. Then the pilot cut a hard right, and about four minutes later, the same plane came back, and this time that gunner was shooting the shit out of the place….They didn’t bomb us like at Pearl, but they machine-gunned the shit out of us. They burned down every airplane we had except one.”
McLaughlin saw combat throughout the Pacific theater, and he escaped without injury. “Four major campaigns and not a mark,” he says. “Just good luck.”
After the war, McLaughlin went to college in Mexico City on the GI Bill, in what he remembers as the happiest time of his life. He re-enlisted and served in the Air Force until his retirement in 1971. By then, his marriage had broken up, and his ex-wife had taken the kids back to her native Scotland, where they are now raising families
of their own. Since then, he’s
been globe-trotting, everywhere from Europe to Asia to Venezuela, where he worked in a liquor store
McLaughlin is one of those ex-military sorts who emerge from their years of service as mellow as can be. He still has the jarhead lingo and mannerisms, and a Henry Fonda voice right out of the World War II flick Mister Roberts, but his turquoise Navaho ring betrays a free spirit who exploited the military experience as a chance for adventure. At the home, he does whatever the hell he wantssleeps late sometimes, skips breakfast, maybe stays in bed to watch the tube all day. If the weather’s nice and he’s in the mood, he might take a stroll along the pathnicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trailthat winds through a wooded area to the health-care facilities down the hill. Let the other guys and gals weave baskets and hit golf balls around. He’s just taking it easy. It ain’t Mexico City when the dollar was 7 to 1 on the peso, but it’s not bad.
Naturally, McLaughlin wasn’t all that enamored of the Soldiers’ Home when he first arrived in his RV six years ago. In fact, he left after a few weeks, only to come back for good six months later. His return was more out of resignation than anything else. “I’m 77 years old, for crissakes,” he says. “I realized that at my age I need a little more help and some security, and this is a good place for that. Once in a while, I still get a little disgusted with the place, but I don’t intend to leave now. What I miss is not seeing any children, not seeing any ladies, with a few exceptions. It’s not a normal world. I like to hear kids play, and I like to see ’em around. This is not a normal living atmosphere. It’s kind of like you’re just being held in abeyance until you take that final trip to Arlington.”
Nearby, a couple of old salts lounge on one of the benches along a shrub-lined promenade in between the Sherman and Scott Buildings. One’s tall and lanky, the other short and stubby.
The short one, Truman Moyer, is a 20-year career man, a World War II vet from Allentown, Pa., where he spent his postmilitary years working in a steel mill. Now 75, he arrived at the home in ’93 after his wife died. “She fell over dead, so I came here,” he says. “I had no place to go.” He points over to the grand, towering Sherman Building and scoffs: “They should blow that up. It’s obsolete nowthey don’t need it. It’s just standing there. What good is it?”
The Sherman Building has long been designated a national historical landmark, along with several others on the grounds. Home officials couldn’t blow it up even if they wanted to.
His cohort, Patrick Goldsworthy, a 65-year-old former Marine sporting a regulation buzz cut, agrees, sort of. “The historical society comes inI can’t understand this, eitherthey come in and put their tag on it and say, ‘This is history, so you gotta maintain it.’ But I don’t think they should get rid of the Sherman.”
He’s more concerned that a whole generation is disappearing and nobody seems to give a damn. “These guys are on their last damn legs herethey’re dying by the droves. We’re losing World War II veterans at 1,000 a day nationwide. Right here, if you go down to the board, you see four or five on there almost every day, and that’s out of a population of 1,200 people.”
The home needs more services like the dry cleaner and the shoe cobbler that were downsized away a few years back. As for these othersthe bowling alley, the golf course, the fitness centerwhat are they good for, really? Moyer calls it foolishness: “Half of these guys can’t even make up their own bunk, can’t even cut their own toenails. They can’t move a fucking bowling ball.”
Goldsworthy chimes in: “Same thing with the golf coursemost of these guys can’t touch their shoes. That’s for the dignitaries down there; it ain’t for us. That’s a smokescreen.”
In fact, Goldsworthy counts himself among these walking infirm. The main reason he checked into the home a few years ago is that he’s suffering from a form of osteoarthritis, a condition now in an advanced stage: His limbs are stiffening and his mobility is limited. It’s extremely painful and makes it impossible to relax, much less feel comfortable. Little by little, he’s turning into a living version of that skeleton down at the medical museum at Walter Reed.
Moyer says the early ’90s were the glory years, when 20-year vets were the normguys you could bullshit with down at the Snake Pit, a hangout near the laundry room where they drank cans of beer out of vending machines. “I liked it at first, when there was a different kind of personnel in here. Most of the men we knew all leftall the good men, they just left the home. We’re getting all the Category 3s in here now, guys that had two or three years in combat, a lot of 8-balls. They’re pathetic; they just feel sorry for themselves.”
A few years back, the required age for admittance was raised to 60, and as a result, there is a more elderly, more infirm resident population. The spectacle of these old-timers on their last march around the grounds doesn’t move Moyer to pity. Instead, it makes him want to stiffen the rules. “The uniform code in the mess hall should be enforced,” he says. “Half of ’em come in there don’t wear socks, don’t shave, come in with sweat suits.”
“Well, look at me,” says Goldsworthy, yanking up his sweat pants to reveal a bare, spindly ankle. “I’m sitting here without any socks, and I’ve got a goddam reason why I don’t have any socks on.”
“Well, you’re different,” says Moyer, realizing that he, too, is wearing sweats.
“Well, it don’t make any difference whether I’m different or not,” comes the retort.
The men’s cranky exchange, honed over the years to a familiar routine, is clearly more a way to pass the time than to solve any disagreements. Though more contrary then most, their banter is entirely typical for residents. The war stories have all been toldin all their myriad versionsand now the main topic of conversation for many is the final battle, a solitary one at that.
When the subject then turns to suicides, the anecdotes pour forth. Goldsworthy has seen all sorts: “One guy in the Sherman Buildingit was kind of uniquehe really did a number on himself: He wet down his mattress and then he hooked a bare wire into the bed and got in the bunk, and he plugged it into the socket, and he juiced himself.”
Moyer won’t be outdone: “Well, another guy, he jumped off the Scott Building. He landed down here by the loading docks and bounced off that onto the parking lot…”
Recognizing that the chatter has taken a dark turn, Goldsworthy changes the subject. “This home has a lot of good thingsdon’t get me wrong,” he says. “The chow is excellent. They do a fine job. But there’s always room for improvement. This place is one of a kind. The VA hospitals have nothing to do with this place.”
He says that unless the financial situation is fixed, the home is going under; all the buildings on grounds will be swallowed up by the VA complex nearby. That’s what it’s going to be, he says, a gigantic VA nursing home. “Then they’ll take away all your income,” he says. “That’s what they dothey take everything you have and leave you a paltry sum.”
Down the promenade, the old soldiers pass by in a perpetual slow-motion parade, except now there are no uniforms, no weapons, no ranks. Most are taking their daily constitutional to the Sherman Building to check their mail or play pool in the rec room. Bent over the tables, their cue sticks trembling, they could be residents at any retirement home, except that their rolled-up sleeves reveal faded tattoos, splotchy depictions of anchors and nudes that memorialize various wars and women. Sometimes, a tattoo is simply the inky, now undecipherable name of a wife who’s died.
The different gaits of these vets provide clues
to their conditions: The slow, crooked shuffle of
a stroke victim. The limp of a World War II vet who got hit by a mortar shell a half-century ago. The
forward-leaning, arms-hanging-down walk of the Parkinson’s sufferer. The hurried, stare-ahead stroll of a sharply dressed gent in a camel-hair coat and a fedora…
“Hey, it’s Sam Spade,” wisecracks Moyer, trying in vain to elicit a greeting out of the guy. “He’s a loner. He’s in another world.”
“It’s nerve-wracking,” says Goldsworthy. “A lot of these guys in here, they’re afraid they’re going to end up under a bridge somewhere. They hear the talk: The money’s going down, the gates are gonna close.”
All of them fought their share of battles, but once they rolled into the home, they thought the fight for survival, for a plain old place to hang your hat, was over.
McLaughlin, who has remained a silent but bemused listener, has his own plans. “I’m getting the itches. I gotta take a holiday,” he says. “I gotta find me a liberty town. Tampa is nice this time of year.” He lights a cigarette in the wind and heads back alone to his room in the Scott Building.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.