RETIRED VETS RETURN TO HOME REBUILT AFTER KATRINA
By: MARY FOSTER
Monday, 04 October 2010
Mountain Daylight Time
Doris Jones, retired United States Army, hunched over in her wheelchair, an American flag in one hand, and tears streaming down her face.
"I can't tell you how I feel," said Doris Jones, one of about one hundred and fifty veterans who returned Monday to the new Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport.
"I missed it every minute we were away.
I missed the people, I missed the Coast, I missed my home."
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the retirement home near the beach five years ago, residents were evacuated to the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C.
The vets evacuated from the building after the storm are the first to move into the new one.
Those arriving Monday were greeted by Miss Mississippi, a congressman, high school cheerleaders, and a bevy of young members of the military.
Each of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen was assigned to one of the veterans - - - they pushed wheelchairs and carried bags, walkers and oxygen tanks.
"I was here for Katrina," said Builder Second Class Daniel McCluskey, age twenty-three, stationed on the Gulf Coast with the United States Navy.
"I know what these people went through and wanted to be here to welcome them back."
Most of the residents rode out Hurricane Katrina at the retirement home, and were unhurt.
But flooding caused by the storm surge left cars floating in the parking lot, and residents weary and worried.
"The last time I saw most of these people I was trying to clean mud off enough chairs so they could all sit down," Lena Byrd, a hair dresser at the home for twenty-six years, said between shouted greetings and warm hugs.
"They are a very brave, very wonderful group."
The new facility, which can accommodate five hundred and eighty people in independent living apartments, or three assisted living areas, cost one hundred and eighty-five million dollars.
The building is lavish, especially compared to the one they left.
It has a library, movie theater, bocce court, bowling court, Olympic-size pool, fitness center, computer center - - - even a sewing room.
The old apartments were only ninety square feet.
The new ones are four hundred and fifty square feet and have a small kitchen.
All but three have balconies with a view of the Gulf of Mexico across the highway.
There is an elevated walkway to use if residents want to visit the beach.
"I feel like I've been set free again," said Marion Richie, age ninety-three, who served in the United States Navy.
"They were very nice to us in D.C., but you weren't free to go out the way we are here.
This is more of a small-town place, and I like that kind of atmosphere."
The desire to return was almost unanimous for those who left after Hurricane Katrina, said Jack McCormick, age eighty-seven, who served in the Army Air Corps in the Second World War.
"I know of only two people who didn't want to come back," Jack McCormick said.
"But my heart never left here."
The ordeal of the hurricane, the evacuation to Washington D.C., the wait, and even the emotional return seemed to have taken little toll on the group of elderly warriors.
Some even welcomed the entire event.
"I thought I had seen the last of my grand adventures," said Sid Land, age seventy-six, retired United States Navy.
"But then Hurricane Katrina came along and I had another great adventure."
Published in the DESERET NEWS of Salt Lake City, Utah.