- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

A segment of the veteran population is an enigma to many Americans — those who served in World War II.

This group is, to an extent, a forgotten population, as can be seen by many of the veterans living at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center nursing home.

The facility, renamed the Community Living Center, is located in the VA Medical Center off North Capitol Street in Northwest. It accommodates 120 veterans from World War II and other wars. The center offers comprehensive nursing and rehabilitation care, both temporary and permanent.

Word War II veterans are dying at a rate estimated at 900 per day. Previously 16 million, they now number fewer than 2.583 million, according to a National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics report published in October.

Among the center’s World War II residents who have died within the past few years was a veteran who was partially paralyzed and left without discernible speech after a stroke. He enjoyed being the center of attention and was frustrated to tears at times by his physical limitations.

Another recently deceased veteran was a former military airline mechanic who was articulate, opinionated, blunt and at times quite the curmudgeon. Yet he softened when he spoke about his wife, the love of his life for more than 60 years. The veteran kept himself occupied and his mind sharp by reading and doing complicated jigsaw puzzles. Although a loner, he could entertain by providing vibrant stories about his past.

There was also a bespectacled 101-year-old double amputee who was an eternal optimist. He greeted visitors with a blinding smile while maintaining that he was feeling “just wonderful.” Upon request, he would sing songs learned almost a century earlier in Georgia as a member of a church choir. His voice was sweet and simple, and his face glowed as he sang songs from his youth, according to volunteers at the center.

There still are highly engaging World War II veterans living at the facility. One, who is thought to be a former naval communications analyst, is in her 80s but has the lovely tinkling laughter of a young girl. She was found 10 years ago wandering the streets of the District, homeless and suffering from dementia. Although she can’t say much about her self — past or present — there are glimpses into her former self that occasionally and unexpectedly surface. She has demonstrated an ability as a gifted painter, speaks a smattering of French and sings with a sweet, lilting voice. She has no recollection of learning and nurturing those talents. She does know, however, that she was never married and has wistfully expressed her regret.

There is also everyone’s favorite — a sort-of resident celebrity — a 101-year-old Army veteran. She claims to have 20/20 vision but wears oversized glasses out of vanity — to help hide her wrinkles. She tells bawdy jokes in rapid-fire succession; she regales visitors, staff and fellow residents with colorful stories of her past; and has a sharp memory that no one dares to challenge. Although currently the eldest resident, she does not appear to slow down, and in fact, inactivity makes her impatient.

Residents at the facility are offered daily activities, including exercise, music appreciation and bingo. On the second floor of the center is a common area in which a dozen, primarily World War II veterans, many in wheelchairs, often participate in a shibashi class — a gentle, flowing exercise consisting of gentle rocking and stretching motions. Residents who are able also can participate in weekly outings, including visits to museums, memorials, the zoo, baseball games and movies

Because of financial constraints and space limitations on the transport vans, residents reportedly are allowed just two monthly excursions. Several residents are fortunate enough to go on personal “field trips” arranged by family and friends.

Another opportunity for residents to interact is lunch in the 20-table assigned-seat dining room. Some residents even arrive prematurely, taking their seats and waiting patiently to be served — sometimes up to 30 minutes early — because, as one resident observed, “They have nothing else to do. We are in a nursing home, what else is there to do?” Nonetheless, this routine helps many of them mark the time.

Some veterans have family and friends who can visit easily and often. Others receive no visitors and rely on the compassion of staff, fellow residents and devoted volunteers for attention and simple acts of kindness — acts that to an “outsider” can seem insignificant, but to a resident can be priceless.

The lonely residents unabashedly offer thanks to volunteer visitors for time and conversation. Yet in fact, it is we who should thank them for their service and sacrifices - and the invaluable, inspirational time spent with them.

The medical center welcomes volunteers. Contact the Voluntary Service Program Office at 202/745-8320 or visit www.washingtondc.va.gov/volunteer/volunteer_pro grams.asp.

• Gayle S. Fixler is a Washington-area freelance writer. She is a member of Soldiers’ Angels and the USO of Metropolitan Washington and is a former Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center nursing home volunteer.

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