Gulf Coast veterans displaced by Katrina anxious to go home

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of residents who were evacuated from Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it are looking at their last Veteran's Day in Washington.

For almost all of them, it couldn't come too soon.

In four years, they've adapted — or not — to life at the beautiful Washington campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. With 10 months to go before the rebuilt facility reopens on the Mississippi Coast, however, the veterans talk of little else but getting back to Gulfport.

Most don't plan to attend Veteran's Day events in the Washington area, either saying that they've been to Arlington National Cemetery before or that they find it too difficult to get around. All say they appreciate the recognition, though.

Irene Smith, 85, the most talkative of a group of 10 former Gulfport residents gathered in the lobby of a residence building, grew emotional talking about Veteran's Day.

"I thank God every day that I joined the Navy," said Smith, a Navy WAVE in World War II.

Asked if she wants to return to the Gulf Coast, the good-natured Smith said bluntly, "That's not a very good question." Laughing, she said, "Gosh, yes."

Smith loves a lot about the 272-acre Washington campus, which boasts historic buildings, including the Lincoln Cottage, where President Abraham Lincoln spent his summers and wrote a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation; the Old Soldier's Home; and a special perk — a nine-hole golf course.

"I think the grounds are wonderful," Smith said. "I've met a lot of nice people, but there were a lot of nice people in Mississippi."

"I would not want to live here," she said. Her complaints, echoed by many, are that they're much more isolated than they were on Gulfport's 11-acre oceanfront building, with D.C. stores and restaurants hard to get to and city driving a challenge.

To the evacuees, Gulfport is "heaven on earth."

Frances Scott, a Mississippi Coast resident for more than 40 years before retiring to the Gulfport facility, said simply, "I'm going home."

"I miss the weather very much," she added, referring to the mild winters. Scott and others were well aware that Tropical Storm Ida just skimmed the Gulf Coast, but this hurricane-tested group was unconcerned.

Of the 414 residents in the Gulfport retirement home when Katrina hit in 2005, about 350 were evacuated to Washington — many on 10 buses provided by the Armed Forces Retirement Home. There are 202 Gulfport residents remaining in Washington, said retirement home spokeswoman Sheila Abarr. At least 170 are on the list to return to Gulfport.

"D.C. is a lovely city to visit," said Henry Pike, 85, a Gulfport resident from 1985 to the 2005 evacuation, "and then get out of Dodge."

A veteran of three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — Pike said that Washington "is too crowded to enjoy most of it."

Pike keeps close tabs on the new Gulfport building and its living quarters, which at 450 square feet will be nearly five times larger than what he had before. Even with the original 92 square feet, he said, "I was perfectly happy."

Air Force veteran Bill Williams, 79, originally from Fort Worth, Texas, spent 21 years of his retirement driving around the country in an RV before settling in the Gulfport facility in 2003. He's ready to go back, but unlike the others, he said, "I love it here."

A skilled carver, Williams has a workshop in the basement where he makes wooden cowboy figures and carves scenes into moose antlers that decorate the walls.

Southern food is a pull for the Gulf Coast, too, with many residents craving fried mullet and string beans with fatback.

Bill and Sally Blythe, 87 and 86, respectively, and one of the few married couples at the facility — individuals must qualify separately with their military service to live at an Armed Forces Retirement Home — lived on the Gulf Coast in Long Beach, Miss., before moving to the Gulfport residence. Of the Gulf Coast, Bill Blythe joked, "We retired there twice."

J.W. Hickman, it turns out, is counting the days to return to Gulfport, and said he's been in Washington "four years, two months and 10 days."

"I haven't been thrilled since September 1st, 2005," when he arrived in the city he hates, the Navy veteran said. "I've got 10 months and 20 days to go."

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The Armed Forces Retirement Home

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