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D.C. Retirement Home Opens Doors to Evacuated Veterans
D.C. Retirement Home Opens Doors to Evacuated Veterans

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

The cheering started as soon as the buses rumbled up the driveway of the District's Armed Forces Retirement Home. Military officers and enlistees mixed with civilians in a two-sided receiving line, waving small American flags and clapping for the elderly veterans who had survived World War II, Korea and, now, Katrina.

"Welcome to D.C.! Welcome to your new home," said Rochelle Jones, a staffer for the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria. Stepping forward, she enveloped Jim Holder in a hug.

"Oh, honey, I love you," said Holder, who wore a light shirt, khaki shorts, white socks and black loafers, and clutched a plastic shopping bag stuffed with a few belongings.

Jones hugged harder. "I love you, too."

Holder was among 415 veterans evacuated from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina flooded the ground floor of their quarters Monday, leaving them without electricity or running water.

About 250 evacuees arrived just before noon at the leafy, landscaped campus of their sister home in Northwest Washington, exhausted from a trip that stretched across two days and several states.

The most frail were flown to Washington separately, while two hardy retirees drove in a private vehicle. Dozens more were expected to trickle in soon.

With their Mississippi beachfront facility uninhabitable, and much of the neighborhood around it destroyed, the retirees will stay at the D.C. home for at least several months, said Timothy C. Cox, chief operating officer of both entities.

A spokeswoman for the home said the facility has about 1,000 permanent residents but can accommodate up to 1,700. Military veterans and retirees who have reservations to enter will not lose their places, officials said.

News that the retirees in Gulfport needed a haven prompted a flurry of activity at the historic D.C. campus, built on 276 hilly acres between North Capitol Street and the Brightwood neighborhood. Hundreds of staffers and volunteers cleaned 400 empty rooms in a dormitory and an unused residential building; hauled in beds, nightstands and clothes lockers; hung towels; tucked in sheets and blankets; and prepared bags of donated toiletries and snacks.

Melodie R. Menke, director of volunteer services at the home, said a public appeal for assistance prompted thousands of responses, including one by a mother and son from Michigan on vacation in Washington.

"They jammed the phone lines, they jammed the e-mail; we had just an outpouring of people," Menke said. " 'I want to help our vets. They helped us.' Almost everybody used that line."

The Gulfport facility opened in Philadelphia in 1834 for Navy retirees and relocated to Mississippi in 1976. It was merged administratively with the D.C. facility -- known at that time as the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home -- in 1991. Both homes were open to veterans who had served at least 20 years, served in a war theater or retired with a service-related injury.

Cox said yesterday it is too soon to know whether the Gulfport home will be rebuilt.

The evacuees clambered down from the buses looking dazed, some using canes, walkers or wheelchairs, others toting pillows or oxygen tanks. They'd been permitted to pack a single suitcase before leaving, and officials said they did not know how much of the remaining belongings could be salvaged.

One man, sporting several days' growth of white whiskers, paused before a smiling young woman in Air Force fatigues.

"Terrible experience. Terrible," he said, shaking his head.

"It's okay," the young woman gently told him. "You're home now."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company