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Veterans Home Celebrates 125 Years, Rebuilding Project For Future

March 25, 2014, 10:22 PM by Kevin Woster

Veterans Home Celebrates 125 Years, Rebuilding Project For Future

For more than a century, the state veterans home in Hot Springs has been everything its name implies for aging veterans in South Dakota.

The 125-year-old facility got a new name in 1998, when it was dedicated to Michael J. Fitzmaurice, a South Dakotan who won the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam. But the home is as old as the state itself and some of the facilities show it.

A $41-million improvement project will soon change the face and functions of the veterans home, a prospect that excites the staff and the veterans they serve.

Visitors to the Hot Springs campus can hear the sounds of the future each day in the growl of motors and the clank of metal against rocky ground. Veterans home officials say the project will bring a new and better style of living for residents here, with facilities and concepts aimed at making the place even more like a home for those who served and their spouses.

"It's really the wave of the future," Director of Operations Randy Meyers said. "To stay competitive and stay up with all of the current federal guidelines and regulations in long-term care, we would need to comply with that anyway. But beyond that, that's the right thing to do."

Meyers says modern facilities with group-housing clusters will help create a more family-like environment in a place where, even in outdated buildings, residents are often as close as blood kin.

It's easy to grow close, with so much in common to consider.

"We've all been down the same road," 83-year-old Korean War veteran Clarence Jerke said. "That makes it a wonderful place to be."

Jerke and his wife moved to the veterans home because of her health problems. Since his wife's death, Jerke and his dog, Molly, have made regular visits to bed-ridden veterans.

"We tour first and second floor, the people who can't get out or anything, Molly and me go and see them," Jerke said. "That makes a lot of those people feel good."

Those kinds of connections make the veterans home special to residents.

"It means a lot," World War II vet Leo "Bud" Weischedel said. "People out here, if you see somebody you know them. There's no strangers. Everybody's the same."

Some have greater medical needs than others. Vietnam veteran Bill Maki came to the facility with life-threatening ailments tied to exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Between care at the vet's home and the nearby VA medical facility, Maki is doing OK.

"Cancer, I guess my stroke, heart attack," Maki said. "I don't know what else is wrong with me. But they're doing a good job here of getting it sorted out."

There are about 130 residents at the vet's home these days, including veterans and spouses. But the demographics are changing.

"There's quiet a few Vietnam vets coming in. But we're losing our old boys," Makis said.

Activities keep many aging vets busy, however. 77-year-old Darrell Custer stays busy following his wife's death by handling mail at the home and works in the shop to make caskets and urns in a program serving South Dakota veterans.

"Not a worry in the world. No grass to mow. No snow to shovel. No maintenance," Custer said. "It's a very good retirement place for veterans."

In some instances, it's the only place. Vietnam veteran Michael Ginger hates to think where he would be without the state veterans home and nearby U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center.

"But for the VA and the grace of God, I'd either be dead or home on the streets," Ginger said.

Instead, he's with friends of a common bond, in a place with a long history of providing a home to all sorts of veterans and a future that could be even better.

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