MARSHALLTOWN — Hiding in plain sight on 150 acres along the Iowa River, on the north edge of town, the Iowa Veterans Home for 131 years has offered veterans an alternative to conventional nursing homes.
Many Iowans may be unfamiliar with the home, but a nearly constant 95 percent occupancy rate indicates the state’s veterans are keenly aware of it.
Since its inception in 1878, when it was known as the Iowa Soldiers’ Home and run like a military installation, the facility has been home to a total of 18,910 Iowa veterans and their spouses. Civil War veteran Milo Smith served as the home’s first commandant. There have been 16 more since then — including Timon Oujiri, a retired Army colonel from Cedar Rapids who has been on the job since May 2017. Commandants are appointed by Iowa’s governor.
In 1977, the facility was renamed Iowa Veterans Home, presumably to make it more clear who it serves.
The facility has 495 residents — 405 men and 90 women — who come from nearly each Iowa county. The United States has 156 veterans homes. Marshalltown has the only one in Iowa and it’s the fifth largest in the nation.
Bill Hotle, 82, of Marion, is one of the 45 veterans from Linn County who live at the home.
Hotle is a Navy veteran who served during the Korean War and owned A & H Appliance in Marion. After his wife died 18 months ago, he said he found it “increasingly difficult to live on my own.” Hotle conferred with family and friends and decided to apply for admission to the Iowa Veterans Home instead of a nursing home. He moved in March 18.
“I couldn’t ask for more than this,” he said, noting he has nice living quarters and is treated with respect by the staff.
But not everything is roses for him. Hotle is a smoker and is mad that Veterans Affairs is trying curtail smoking in facilities it oversees.
“I quit for 31 years before my wife passed. I told her, ‘You quit, I’ll quit.’ That’s the only time I ever caught her lying,” Hotle said, explaining his wife did not quit until a couple of years later. He started the habit again after she died.
“Ease up. Let us die gracefully,” he said.
‘A PLACE TO LIVE’
Commandant Oujiri recently chauffeured a reporter and photographer around the sprawling premises. He greeted each person he met by name. A few residents made small talk. A couple had a gripe or two and let Oujiri know. He listened, asked questions and offered a possible solution — not always to the complainant’s liking.
Oujiri said the most consistent complaint from residents involves salt. They are unhappy it’s not added to some prepared foods. That’s for health reasons, he said, though residents are free to add salt later if they wish.
Oujiri said his goal is to make the Veterans Home “not a place to die, but a place to live.”
In the past 10 years, the home has taken a more holistic approach to its residents’ care.
In the near future, Oujiri said, “We have to look at expanding dementia care ... which is totally different than regular nursing care.”
It’s already more than a nursing facility for veterans. Oujiri likens it to a small city. It has seven buildings, employs 882 — 684 of them full-time — and uses the services of about 800 volunteers who donated 17,641 hours over the past fiscal year.
A new $6.7 million laundry began operation in late August. The VA funded 65 percent of the cost and the state paid for the rest. The laundry washes all residents’ clothes just like at home, while linens are cleaned at “hospital level,” said Hope Harvey, laundry supervisor. With a staff of 20, the laundry processes 7,000 pounds of clothing and linens daily.
The Iowa Veterans Home’s current annual budget is $82 million. Only 7 percent of that comes from state coffers. The rest is a mixture of funding from the VA, Medicare, Medicaid, various insurance providers and donations.
WHEN DINNER WAS LATE
The strong EF3 tornado that struck Marshalltown July 19, severely damaging property over much of the city, mostly spared the Veterans Home. The tornado’s path brought it within about 30 yards of the complex’s property. About 30 trees were lost and the roof of one building sustained damage. But no one was hurt.
Oujiri praised his staff’s quick action in getting all residents into secure tunnels that link several of the buildings. Some staffers have homes in Marshalltown and no doubt were worried by the howling storm. But none left their post. For 45 minutes they kept the Veterans Home residents entertained by telling jokes and singing songs, Oujiri recalled.
Four staff members later learned their homes had been destroyed. Five others’ homes sustained major damage, while a dozen reported minor damage.
Dinner at the home was about 45 minutes late that night, causing some of the grizzled vets to note they had gone through typhoons in the service and dinner was never late, Oujiri said, with a smile.
‘CAN’T BE BEAT’
Esther Little, 95, lived in Brandon for 30 years before becoming a Veterans Home resident in January. Her husband, Glenn Little, was a World War II Army veteran, a military policeman with the 10th Armored Division.
After years of running a gas station and repair shop in Brandon, Glenn decided he needed to move into a care facility. He first went to one in Knoxville but seemed depressed there, Esther said, adding she was not sure why. But after six weeks, Glenn went to Marshalltown and the Vet’s Home.
“He just changed. He acted like he wanted to live some more,” Esther said, He did for another three years, passing away around Christmas 2008.
The couple were married 66 years. Esther conferred with her sons after Glenn’s death and decided she would go to Marshalltown, which she could do since her husband was a veteran and had been a resident.
“It’s home. I am very pleased with it. My room is so much bigger than the one my husband had when he was here,” said Esther, who needs a wheelchair to be mobile. She likes the bingo games, concerts, fishing trips and casino visits she’s gotten to go on.
“They have good meals,” she said, “but the food needs a little salt.”
Vietnam veteran Richard Keilholtz, 75, of Cedar Rapids, moved to the home last February.
His wife of 47 years, Edith, was also a veteran. She died 18 months ago. After that, Keilholtz discussed his future living conditions with his children and decided he’d apply to move into the Veterans Home.
There was a waiting list and it took six months. It might have been longer, but Keilholtz has an 80 percent service-connected disability and also had a referral from the VA Hospital in Iowa City. He also must use a wheelchair to get around.
He shares a room with another resident but says that’s fine with him.
“I love it. It’s a nice place with lots of activities. We went to an air show in Ames, and took biplane rides. That was great,” he said. He also likes the fishing trips to nearby lakes.
“I can honestly say no. I can’t think of anything. I don’t feel cooped up. Everybody gets along good. I recommend it to any vet who wants to come here,” he said.
Ray Helmes, a Korea veteran, suffered from dementia, came to the Vet’s home in March 2016 and died a few months later, said his widow, Priscilla Helmes, 75. She moved into the facility last March.
Priscilla has roomy quarters that allow her to maneuver her scooter. “It can’t be beat,” she said of the Veterans Home. “Anyone here who says they’re bored — there’s something wrong with them,” she said. “ ... If I want to go to Walmart, I can go and take the (home’s) bus.”
Being around the old soldiers taught her a lot she did not know about the military, Priscilla said. She sees a lot of pride in the veterans, which she said makes her feel good.
One thing that has kept her busy is writing a book of her life story, which she began in 2004. An avid reader herself, she’s proud of that accomplishment.
The requirements for admission to the Iowa Veterans Home are: be an honorably discharged veteran of U.S. armed forces; live in Iowa; and have a need for care.
The first application step is to contact the County Veterans Affairs Service officer where the veteran lives. There is often a waiting list.
“We have a 95 percent occupancy rate almost all the time. ... Our waiting list is about 1.5 months, maybe,’’ said Dex Walker, Veterans Home executive assistant.
Cost is based on the veteran’s situation.
If he or she has a 70 percent or higher service connected disability, there is no cost to the veteran.
“They paid up front if they are 100 percent disabled,” Oujiri said, referring to the veterans’ service-related sacrifices.
Others pay according to their own situations and can use various sources, such as private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. “For 500 residents, we have 500 payment plans,’’ Oujiri said.
Currently, 127 veterans at the home have some form of service connected disability. Of that, 68 are classified as having from a 70- to 100-percent service-related disability.
The Veterans Home has changed immensely since its opening in 1887.
More changes were envisioned a couple years ago. A plan to renovate Heinz Hall met some resistance from residents because it would have temporarily displaced some of them, Oujiri said. The renovation was put on hold and remains that way, but is not off the table.
Heinz was built in 1900 and has had updates since, but few within the past 15 years.
Oujiri said the building is not unsafe but needs work. Central air conditioning also needs to be installed to replace inefficient individual cooling units, he added.
An study for completing an upgrade that would not displace Heinz residents is underway.
Other areas that will need upgrading include mental health. Oujiri called it a huge issue for veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post traumatic syndrome. Other health issues include dealing with the effects of Agent Orange from Vietnam and burn pit residues from the Middle East.
Another possible project is a million-dollar upgrade of the courtyard, including adding a gazebo for outdoor events.
Oujiri hopes a donation campaign will finance that improvement.
WHO’S AT VETERANS HOME
- Of the 495 residents, there are 19 couples.
- Almost every Iowa county is represented. Polk County leads with 106, followed by Marshall County with 58 and Linn County with 45. Only two other counties have more than 20 residents here — Black Hawk with 29 and Johnson 23.
- Vietnam veterans make up the greatest number of residents at 230.
- There are 45 World War II vets living at the Marshalltown complex.