Post Magazine: Stories from the Soldiers’ Home

March 1, 2013

The Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest D.C., one of two in the nation, houses 566 veterans who have served in conflicts from World War II to Desert Storm and range in age from 53 to 101. Here are some of their stories.       Interviews by Emily Wax; photos by Matt McClain.   

Main story: Can Soldiers’ Home residents and urban gentrifiers overcome barbed wire?

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Annie Aaron is 73 and was raised in Macon, Ga. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1958 and served for 21 years, performing administrative work in military hospitals and for manpower and equipment teams. She retired as a master sergeant and has lived at the retirement home since 2000.

I was one of 13 siblings. My great-grandmother was a slave in Virginia, and when slavery was over, she changed her name to Dunn, as in, “Done. Done. Done.”

My father was a farmer. There was no money for college, so I would babysit and iron. My sister was a beautician and had moved to the Bronx in New York. I went up to visit her and ended up talking to an Army recruiter and got a slot. I went for my physical, and it was the first time I had ever seen a doctor.

I did well in basic training because my whole life I did the washing and shined shoes. My mother taught me that. I was trained in typing and started working in a military hospital in Fort Hood. I always dreamed of owning a home, so I never took trips or bought a car. I would do “window wishin’ ” and never buy all that much, unless it was an ice cream cone.

I never wanted to get married or have kids. I have 57 nieces and nephews. But I did want a place I could share with my family. I bought a house in Macon for $12,500. I added on a three-bedroom basement where my sister could open a beauty parlor.

I still own the house and go and visit, but I love living here at the home, because I don’t have to worry about doing the dishes, or the washing and ironing if I don’t want to. Plus, Washington has great places to get some ice cream cones.

***

Esker McConnell is 69 and was born in Long Beach, Calif. He entered the Army in 1963 and retired as a sergeant first class in 1985 after working in the  Army’s equal opportunity program. He has lived at the retirement home for eight years and was recently chairman of the home’s Resident Advisory Council.

I never thought I would stay in the Army so long. But I ended up working in the equal opportunity program in Germany, Vietnam and Korea, and it became very clear to me that some black officers and women weren’t being treated fairly.

I  loved that job, helping ensure that they were promoted and being treated right by their supervisors and peers. Sometimes, white guys would tell me that they knew what I did, and they didn’t like it. I always try to bring people together.

When I first moved to this home, there was so much separation; it was like, “those people out there.” It reminded me of being in the service, when so many Americans overseas didn’t get involved in the country they were stationed in and only went to the PX and snack bars on base.

I came into the gates of this beautiful home, and my blood pressure went down, right away. It’s a very stress-free life. But it’s also healthy to get out and have our neighbors come by.

***

Walter Barnes is 81. He was born in Washington, near the Howard Theatre. He served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1955, during the Korean War, as a member of Air Force Band 558 and a clerk typist. He was discharged as an airman first class and has lived at the retirement home for 17 years.

I grew up with Duke Ellington as my neighbor, when U Street was Black Broadway. Washington was this sleepy Southern town with an all-white police force. But white musicians would come uptown to play with us.

I was a drummer in Sarah Vaughan’s band. I was drafted in 1951. I ended up in the Air Force in Okinawa, and each base had a band. They heard I played, and they asked me to join. It ended up being one of the first integrated Air Force bands.

We did so much more than just polish our brass. We played for funerals, parades, during turning points in the war. It was a beautiful band with a mix of people who had a lot of jazz experience. We were tight. I realized then that the one thing that can’t be cut out of you is your love of music.

***

Martin F. Cody is 81 and was born in Flushing, N.Y. He entered the Navy in 1952, serving two years, including in the Korean War. He worked in aviation supply for Navy aircraft carriers and was a seaman first class when he medically retired. He has lived at the retirement home since 1993.

When we live here, we have a lot of stories to tell, war stories, stories from our early lives. Sometimes guys here are really lonely. They clam up when they come here and become reclusive.

I fell in love again at 63 with a Georgia peach. She is now 96 and living in Bethesda, and I go visit her.

A man likes to talk to a woman sometimes, have a good conversation, maybe even dance. The home does a good job keeping us busy. But 20 percent of our population do 80 percent of the trips. So, I am searching for any nice middle-aged women who want to spend a little time with some older guys at the home. Why not? I feel like the guys here need a connection with as many people from the outside as possible.

***

Catharine Deitch, 93, was born on a farm in York County, Pa. She served three years and was a master sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps in charge of records in Calcutta. She moved to the retirement home in 2007.

When I was on my honeymoon in December of 1941 in Daytona Beach, me and the hubby, David Deitch, got news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Back then, we were all patriotic. We knew right away we would go to war. We started marching around the hotel room with a broom.

I enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and started my active duty before my husband. We would joke that he was the only man who stood on the train platform in Harrisburg and waved goodbye to his wife. My mother lived until she was 101 and four months, and she said she was never sick a day in her life until the day I enlisted.

I served in Calcutta, India. I was in the clerical pool. They took really good care of you in India, and Indian women there helped us learn to ride rickshaws. I saw the Taj Mahal and took a toy train up into the hills of India.

The war ended, and on Oct. 30, 1945, we went home through Pakistan, and I even rode a camel there. It was very safe back then. Me and the hubby were reunited and went on to be married for a total of 63 years. Sometimes, you have to have faith that you will meet the people you love again.

***

Raymond Anderson was born in Longville, Minn. He retired as a specialist 5 after working for almost 21 years in food service for the Army. He has lived at the retirement home since 1996.

I was born in a little one-horse town that had 100 or maybe 200 people. There were no jobs, period. I was such a young squirt when the Army in 1942 drafted a whole lot of people. I was one of them. I was glad because you would get three square meals a day.

I became a mess cook, really a baker making corn bread and rolls. I served in Korea, Japan, Germany and Thailand. I wasn’t able to do the one thing that was my favorite part of me: my keyboard playing. We were fighting Hitler; that was enough of a goal.

I wish I would have gotten married and had children. But I never did and just focused on my military service, and I rose to become a mess sergeant.

When people are hungry during a war, you have to serve rations, and sometimes its it’s just pork and beans. But when they do get to eat, after long days in combat, you really do see people smile. I liked it so much that when I left the Army after 20 years, I became a cake decorator.

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