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For military retirees, life is in D.C., hearts are in Gulfport

WASHINGTON—The setting is bucolic. The drive up the hill past brownstones leads to a gated entrance that opens to green lawns with tall oaks, residence halls, imposing historic buildings, a quaint red-brick chapel and even a nine-hole golf course.

Astonishingly, the campus of the 272-acre Armed Forces Retirement Home is in the middle of Washington, in the northwest quadrant of the city, just four miles from the Capitol.

But to many of the 258 residents who were evacuated from the much more modest 44-acre Armed Forces Retirement Home facility in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina a year ago, the larger, better-appointed Washington location isn't the same at all.

"Down on the coast, that's where I'd rather be," said Henry Lindley, a Korea and Vietnam War vet who lived in Gulfport for nearly two years before being evacuated.

Lindley, 73, who was an Air Force intelligence officer, lived in the Washington facility from 1998 to 2003, but said he preferred Gulfport. Why?

"The culture, the climate, just old-home folks," he said. Asked what's wrong with Washington, he said, "The home is fine, it's just where it is. It's not my preference. I don't get involved in the humdrum of political people."

Lindley doesn't plan on staying, either: "I hope soon they'll tell us if and when we're going back."

The plan, said Mary Kay Grominger, the Gulfport retirement home public affairs specialist, is for the vacant 11-story tower in Gulfport to be torn down and for the General Services Administration—the federal government's real estate agent—to take over Nov. 3 and build a facility that will open "hopefully in three years."

That's not soon enough for most of the once and future Gulfport residents.

"I don't like the home, and I hate the city," said JW Hickman. "The only thing good around here is the Metro," he added, referring to the city's vast subway system.

Hickman, a gruff, pipe-smoking former Navy man, spent 18 months in Gulfport. "I just liked it down there," he said before waving off any more questions.

Of the 414 residents in Gulfport, about 350 were evacuated to Washington—many on 10 buses provided by the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

Billy Dalzell, sitting with his cane at the front of the large stone residence hall with its bowling alley, ceramics workroom and state-of-the-art fitness center, doesn't have such strong feelings. The soft-spoken Dalzell, 79, has lived in Washington before, attending Georgetown University in the early 1940s before serving in World War II. Then he led a whirlwind life all over the globe as a roughneck and oilfield worker—"wherever there was an oil well."

"I loved Gulfport," said Dalzell, reaching for a cigarette. "I really do.

"If I could find a place to stay, I'd be back there," said the former Navy man, who only spent a year at the retirement facility in Mississippi. "I prefer a little bit more milder climate."

The small informal group sitting and talking on a warm fall morning are across from a vital part of America's history—the "Lincoln cottage," where President Lincoln spent much of the Civil War with his family. Now being restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the cottage provided a retreat for Lincoln next to the Soldier's Home, an 1851 castle-like structure that dominates the grounds. Lincoln is believed to have written a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation during his time at the cottage.

Despite the historic surroundings, William "Doc" Thomas, who spent only nine months in Gulfport, is counting the days to get back to the coast. "It's OK," Thomas, who served in the Navy for 21 years, said of the Washington facility. "(But) I don't like it here."

Gerald Campbell, a longtime Gulfport resident who spent 15 years on the Coast, had a rough evacuation, driving himself to family in Memphis and then taking a bus to Washington. "I decided I had to be here, whether I liked it or not," he said.

He sized up the Washington experience this way: "The medical (attention) is great, but we're not wanted here by the residents."

In a small chapel in the residence, Catherine Dailey practiced singing a psalm with a priest for Sunday's service. "I like it here very much," she said. "I'm very fortunate to be here, to fall from the hurricane to a place where they take care of you."

Dailey, a 14-year Gulfport resident, anticipates staying in Washington, no matter what happens. "There's everything here if you want to take advantage of it," she says of the cultural benefits.

Sweethearts Loise Hogan and Andrew Pellkofer met in Gulfport and have been "keeping company" for "going on 13 years."

Hogan, who raised four children after her husband's death in 1964, hadn't thought of taking advantage of her World War II service as a naval intelligence code-breaker. But her daughter persuaded her to try Gulfport. "I liked it," said Hogan.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home facilities—open to veterans with 20 years of service, those unable to earn livings due to service injuries and all female veterans with service prior to 1948—are funded by monthly military and residents' fees.

Hogan enjoys Washington, but Pellkofer said, "We're here vegetating until Gulfport gets built."

So why aren't the two married?

"I've asked her three times," said an exasperated Pellkofer, 76. Hogan, 86, smiling, says, "I'll say `yes' the fourth time."

"We'll get married in Gulfport," said Pellkofer. "Get Gulfport built."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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