- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

D oris Jones doesn’t look like a refugee. She is pert and attractive and a tad sassy in her spiffy, military baseball cap.Her smiling face, smooth skin and youthful body language belie her age as a retiree and a senior citizen. A registered nurse burn specialist, she spent 22 years in the Army Medical Corps. During the Vietnam War she rode in C-141 flying hospitals ferrying GI burn victims from the battlefield to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Reflecting on that time 35 years ago, as we sit over lunch in the cafeteria of Washington’s historic U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, she says it was an experience she will never forget. Hundreds of young soldiers were stacked on stretchers in the belly of the huge aircraft and “med-evac-ed” across the Pacific, some dying on the way, others wondering whether they would ever live normal lives again.

During a five-year tour at Brooke, she nursed them back to health. It was the biggest challenge of her life and also one of the most rewarding things she ever did.

After the Army, Mrs. Jones and her husband retired in Florida. During frequent trips to casinos in Gulfport, Miss., they had visited the U.S. Naval Home, one of two retirement facilities in the United States for veterans.

Built in the 1970s, the Naval Home was cozy and bright, nicely located on a picturesque drive dotted with plantation-style mansions facing the beach. It was the kind of place — small townish and homey — that spoke to her.

When her husband died, Mrs. Jones suddenly found herself alone and in need of a change. She moved from Miami to the Naval Home in Gulfport and lived there happily for a year until her new home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in September.

Along with some 400 other veterans, roughly one-quarter of them women, she moved to the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, otherwise known as the Old Soldiers’ Home.

On land originally owned by the banker George Riggs, the home was opened in 1851 under the sponsorship of the Mexican War hero Gen. Winfield Scott, Sen. Jefferson Davis and other public figures as a “military asylum” for disabled veterans, the nation’s first sanctuary for “the faithful defenders of our country.”

Located on one of the highest spots in the District, its cool breezes; shady, bucolic environment; and sweeping views of the city below give peace of mind and inspiration to both visitors and residents.

One of those residents was President Lincoln, who made the campus of the Old Soldiers’ Home his summer retreat during the most momentous years of his presidency. This delightfully isolated hideaway — friends and important government officials got lost trying to visit him there — proved to be a special place for him, providing inspiration and renewal of spirit during the most trying time for a nation and its president.

Lincoln and his family lived in a modest, but comfortable Victorian cottage, originally called Anderson House, during the summers of 1862 to 1864. They liked the retreat so much that they stretched their summer sojourns into autumn and often visited the place in other seasons on horseback and carriage rides. And the president rode out to the Soldiers’ Home on the afternoon of April 13, just hours before he was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth.

Over the years, the president spent a total of 14 months in residence at the “Summer White House.” It was a time when Lincoln felt a heavy weight on his shoulders and an ache in his heart. In February 1862, his middle son, 10-year-old Willie, died of typhus, probably from contaminated water flowing through the real White House pipes.

Double was the Lincolns’ sorrow, since they had lost an infant son, Eddie, in the 1850s. The “iron cage” of the White House was too much for the Lincolns to bear in their grief, and they retreated to the summer cottage on the hill, away from office-seekers, lobbyists and all manner of society who flooded into the White House almost uncontrolled.

The burdens of state grew heavier by the day as the fourth month of Lincoln’s first term brought the beginning of the Civil War. The first gun of that conflict was fired against Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861.

Even in his rustic retreat, Lincoln was reminded of the war at every turn. Battles raged in nearby Northern Virginia, and the Soldiers’ Home cemetery, just yards from his residence, was a macabre scene of constantly shifting corpses as thousands of soldiers were buried, removed and reburied.

Lincoln was in constant danger — and, indeed, had been since his inauguration — with numerous rumors of assassination plots. From the Soldiers’ Home, his daily commutes downtown to the White House by carriage or on horseback brought him in direct contact with the grim realities of a war in which military science had leaped a giant step ahead of medical technology.

His route took him by wartime hospitals, which he and the first lady often visited, witnessing firsthand the suffering and agony of a nation torn apart. He also saw the “contraband” camps for escaped slaves who were fleeing by the thousands into the nation’s capital from the slave-owning states in rebellion.

One hundred forty-four years ago tomorrow — April 16, 1862 — Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress freeing all slaves in the District of Columbia. This was the first federal act of emancipation, which led to the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing all slaves within any state then in rebellion against the United States.

With this revolutionary act, the Civil War was lifted to the dignity of a crusade.

By providing the president the sanctuary he needed to distill his thoughts and quiet his mind during those turbulent times, the Soldiers’ Home was the crucible where the articles of our Constitution were finally fused with the principles of human liberty — but not completely so and not right away.

Another hundred years had to pass before the Soldiers’ Home itself was desegregated in 1963.

As the winter wind howls outside, I ask her how she likes the home and how long she plans to stay. She replies with a laugh that she is “on assignment.”I guess editor wrote previous inline note —did s/he make up quote at end? I am replacing original last sentence with it….-jkbI bid goodbye to Doris Jones as afternoon shadows lengthen on the still-dormant lawn at the Old Soldiers’ Home. As the winter wind howls outside, I ask her how she likes the home and how long she plans to stay. She replies with a laugh that she is “on assignment.”

Sam Oglesby is a writer with roots in Washington and the Eastern Shore. He can be reached at ogl39@aol.com.

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