WWII Veterans Win New Respect During Washington Visit

When some World War II veterans wanted to see the National WWII Memorial in Washington, their nursing home brought them. The trip changed forever the way the nursing home staff viewed these frail and disabled residents.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Now a story about a group of very determined World War II veterans. Frail and disabled, they were intent on seeing the new World War II Memorial in Washington. As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, getting to the memorial, the vets surprised themselves. They also changed the way their nursing home workers see them.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

At sunrise, four certified nurse assistants walk the long hall.

Unidentified Man #1: How'd the night shift go?

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, OK. Everything went good. Everything was fine.

Unidentified Man #1: Excellent.

Unidentified Woman #1: Just checking, making rounds, making sure everything's OK.

SHAPIRO: They knock on doors and wake up patients.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning, Joe.

JOE: Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Only these nurse aides and patients are not in a nursing home. They're at a fancy hotel in Washington, DC. They've come with Lutheran Homes of Michigan. It runs nursing homes and other facilities. It's brought 29 veterans to see the national World War II Memorial. The staff has turned this hotel into a kind of mini-nursing home. David Gehm runs Lutheran Homes of Michigan.

Mr. DAVID GEHM (Lutheran Homes of Michigan): We have about 52 staff; six of them are RNs. The balance would be nursing assistants. We have one physical therapist assistant with us to help, and we have a physician with us.

SHAPIRO: Also, oxygen tanks and a truckload of other medical supplies: a device to lift residents in and out of bed; about 200 medications; a couple dozen wheelchairs and a fleet of vans and buses with wheelchair lifts. It's a logistical operation worthy of the US Army. Gehm handed out red T-shirts to each veteran with a slogan on the back.

Mr. GEHM: It says, `Freedom from one generation to another.' That's kind of been our theme for this whole project. This generation gave us the freedoms we enjoy. And our job now is to empower them with the freedom to travel and move about and just continue to be part of the community.

SHAPIRO: The original idea for this trip was to pay tribute to a dying generation of World War II veterans. But many of them doubted they could even get here, like Jack Healy(ph) of Saginaw. He's 85. In the last few years he's gone blind. John Healy(ph) is Jack Healy's son.

Mr. JOHN HEALY (Jack Healy's Son): He didn't think he could come on this trip when they conceived the idea about a year ago. He thought, `Well, I can't see and my knees are so bad, a year from now I won't be able to see anything or do anything.'

SHAPIRO: But then John saw something that made him realize his dad really did want to go.

Mr. JOHN HEALY: It was marked on the calendar in great big star, and he--it has really kept him going.

SHAPIRO: So this week Jack Healy and his sons met in Washington. John came from Ohio. Another son, Jim, flew in from Alaska. On a van to Arlington National Cemetery, Jack Healy tells stories that weren't the usual ones he told his sons when they were growing up about how he'd survived the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Mr. JACK HEALY (World War II Veteran): When we went by Pearl Harbor, that harbor was red with blood, and guys are--jumped off the ships, and they're all swimming in there. It was quite a spectacle.

SHAPIRO: At Arlington, John and Jim Healy push their father's wheelchair past the hillside of white gravestones. The temperatures hit the 90s. Jack Healy's got friends buried here. Because he's lost his vision, the gray-haired veteran can't see the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns or the changing of the guard, so his son Jim narrates. Jim served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

Mr. JIM HEALY (Jack Healy's Son): They're going to march by and give us a salute, OK?

Mr. JACK HEALY: Wonder if he's got his winter uniform on or his summer.

Mr. JIM HEALY: No, he's got his winter, his dark dress blues on.

Mr. JACK HEALY: Oh, they're wool.

Mr. JIM HEALY: Yeah, they are. He just moved his rifle from the right side to the left side, so that it's on the other side of this--the tomb.

Mr. JACK HEALY: Yeah. Yeah.

Unidentified Soldier: ...one, halt.

(Soundbite of heels clicking together)

Mr. JIM HEALY: They're pretty tight, Pop, in their movements.

Mr. JACK HEALY: They are. That's what you call spit and polish.

SHAPIRO: Jack Healy's got a red, white and blue ribbon pinned to his shirt. In gold letters, it says, `World War II Vet.' Strangers, including a teacher and her young students, reach out to grab his his hand and say thanks.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you, sir.

Mr. JACK HEALY: You're welcome. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: David Gehm, the CEO for Lutheran Homes, says his staff works with these veterans every day. But they didn't realize these frail seniors could do so much, like sight-see for more than 12 hours under the hot sun.

Mr. GEHM: There's a general notion in society, in general, that folks lose a lot of their function and freedom when they're forced into more institutional kinds of settings. And so we really saw this as an opportunity to hopefully shatter that notion a bit. I think we've stretched the limit of our own thinking on this right now with this trip. I think we've learned that we can do a lot more. And our veterans, our residents, can do an awful lot more than we've even thought about before.

SHAPIRO: After the trip is over the staff of Lutheran Homes pack up all the equipment and supplies. The residents in their wheelchairs get back onto the buses, this time to go to the airport.

(Soundbite of engine)

Unidentified Man #2: All right. Let's get some final count. This is our no-man-left-behind policy here, right?

Mr. JACK HEALY: Yes, that's right.

Unidentified Man #2: So we got three Healys.

Mr. JACK HEALY: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: We got a Russell.

SHAPIRO: As for Jack Healy, his sons are trying to persuade him to take another, even longer trip, this time to Alaska. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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