Columnist John Paradis: In Soldiers’ Home tragedy, a call for justice and accountability

  • This May 2018 file photo ,shows an aerial view of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. AP

Published: 6/4/2020 2:18:50 PM

When you have a tragedy the likes of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, what does government do? It investigates.

A good investigation should do three things. It should find out why and how something happened and was information held or just not acted upon. Two, it should make recommendations that ultimately result in actions that prevent another tragedy from occurring. And a good investigation should provide closure for those who have been most impacted.

In one sentence: What happened and how do you prevent it from happening again.

What is necessary is that the veterans at the home must be heard.

Since many of the veterans suffer from dementia, memory loss, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases and ailments, they rely on their family members or their health care proxy to make medical decisions and to advocate for them. Earlier this week, family members told me that no one has reached out to the family members to ask them for their thoughts on what happened.

Some of the family members have contacted the investigation teams. But unless they know who to call or even that they are invited to call, they wouldn’t otherwise know about the opportunity to say their peace.

But I can tell you they expect and deserve justice. And justice means accountability.

“Family members of the veterans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 up at the Soldier’s Home all deserve to be heard,” said Laurie Mandeville Beaudette, the daughter of Jim Mandeville, who died April 14 of COVID-19 after 16 years at the Soldiers’ Home. He would have turned 84 this past Wednesday.

“We just don’t understand why the investigators didn’t contact the health care proxy from every veteran who passed away from COVID-19 and ask them to be interviewed,” said Beaudette.

As we await the formal out brief from several investigations into what happened at the Soldiers’ Home, here is what we know so far from local, regional and national media reporting.

The veterans at the home have suffered over the years because there simply is not enough staff to attend to their complex needs. The cramped size of rooms and multiple occupants per room make infection control difficult at best. How the facility is managed, and the rigor or lack of state and federal inspections has come into question as has transparency. It’s also clear the state does a terrible job communicating information with families and elected officials.

Let’s hope the investigators are looking at all these issues in addition to answering the basic facts of what happened. But the investigations cannot be complete until they have made a much greater effort to speak with as many veterans and family members as possible.

The state also doesn’t have to wait for the investigations to conclude to make good on its promise to provide care with honor and dignity to those who have served our nation.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on May 12 signed its annual priority list of construction grants for state-run veteran homes across the country.

Under the VA State Home Construction Grant program, the federal government covers 65% of the cost of construction and repair for state homes after the states commit to the balance in matching funding.

Of the 75 entries on the list, 45 have received matching funds by their states. The other 30 are in a holding pattern until their states pledge their legally required 35% of the total cost of construction.

No state matching funds results in no federal funds, which means no construction. It’s that simple.

For the seventh year in a row, the renovation project for the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke is on the list, sitting at No. 50 on the state “No-Matching Funds” category. It was approved in 2013 for 65% federal funding of the construction cost, or approximately $76 million for a new $116 million wing at the Home that, according to the design specifications from 2012, would provide for independent, single rooms. The deficiencies in room size still exist; it appears that the state commitment still does not.

States have until Aug. 1 to commit their 35% for a project to move forward.

For the past seven years, the summer passes by without the state Legislature and the governor of our state taking action to support the veterans of western Massachusetts.

But they can redeem themselves by committing state funds for Holyoke this year. They have less than three months to make it happen. That’s more time than the veterans had who died from COVID-19. There will be excuses made about the state budget cycle, about where to find the money and that more research and studies need to be done. That’s all a smoke screen.

There is already talk about someday having memorials built to honor and remember the lives of those veterans in Holyoke who died from COVID-19. They will be a stamp of infamy in my opinion, but they must nonetheless be in place for all to see as a reminder of what happened in 2020. Let history not repeat itself.

But veterans deserve a much more profound statement of support as a memorial to the veterans who died. We need to express in a significant way that their sacrifice resulted in positive and lasting change. The answer must be a new Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke that would demonstrably improve the quality of life for future generations of veterans in western Mass.

Justice, accountability, and a new path forward is what veterans and family members alike are hoping will happen in the aftermath of one of the worse tragedies in the history of our state. Their voices must be heard.

We need a new home for our veterans for their mind, body and spirit. The state has until August 1 to make it happen this year. The clock is ticking.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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