Columnist John Paradis: Gov. Baker, state continue to let veterans and their families down

  • Laurie Beaudette of Springfield sits beside a memorial for her father, Jim Mandeville, Monday, June 22, 2020 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. He died of COVID-19 at the home on April 14. Gazette file photo

Published: 6/10/2021 4:11:31 PM

Late last month, as Gov. Charlie Baker was visiting Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield for the groundbreaking of an infrastructure project, Laurie Mandeville Beaudette was planning a get-together with close friends and family members.

“Here’s the governor just down the road from me and I’m thinking about my dad and how he died,” Beaudette said.

Her father, James Mandeville, would have turned 85 earlier this month. He died April 14, 2020, at Holyoke Medical Center after he was transferred there from the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke with COVID-19.

Laurie had to get special permission and put on full protective gear to see her dad die at the medical center’s COVID-19 unit. As he laid in a negative-pressure isolation room, she said her last goodbyes to her unresponsive father.

The Navy veteran was one of at least 77 veterans who died during one of the worse COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Nearly all of them were fathers. Nearly all of them died without a loved one by their side at their time of need.

They will be deeply missed this Father’s Day.

That Baker has yet to visit the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke since the start of the pandemic last year is remarkable. Considering he has been out to western Massachusetts for other occasions, wouldn’t visiting the state-run facility not only be the right thing to do but also be an operational necessity given the level of attention the Soldiers’ Home has received? What could be more important?

But family members of the men and women who died from COVID-19 while under the state’s care have learned to not expect much from the state. After all, it was the commonwealth that promised to care for their loved ones with honor and dignity.

Then, when the Legislature approved Baker’s request for a $400 million spending bill to finance the construction for a new Soldiers’ Home, Beaudette and other family members thought, surely, the governor will sign the bill in Holyoke. A letter from the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, of which I am a member, was sent to the governor asking him to come out to Holyoke. We received an auto reply from his office that our request would be passed along. We didn’t hear back.

It would have been a grand moment for the governor to bring the community together and for the state’s top executive to console family members, to acknowledge their significant pain and suffering, and to publicly explain how his administration is going to make sure this never happens again.

Instead, family members learned about the governor’s signature on May 25 from his Twitter account and then from reporters. Then Memorial Day came and went and another opportunity for the governor to visit passed. Again, no Charlie.

Bereaved family members are the secondary victims of COVID-19.

Throughout the COVID-19 ordeal, family members have been told countless times by state and elected officials that “it’s time to move forward.” But how do you move forward, when the state’s highest elected official hasn’t even met with you and acknowledged your pain in a demonstrable way?

So instead, their way of moving forward has been to raise their voices and to hold the state accountable and to do what they can to make sure no other son or daughter will go through what they’ve gone through.

After such a loss, the Coalition gave Beaudette something to latch onto and to channel the pain she was feeling toward something positive. She became particularly close with Cheryl Turgeon and Sheryl Blais, two other daughters of veterans who died of COVID-19 or from complications from the coronavirus while residents of the Home.

Together, they have testified before numerous investigators and have granted more than 50 media interviews, to include national media and the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team.

The Globe report concludes that the Home’s Superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was unqualified and that his family’s political connections had more to do with his hiring than merit.

The Globe also puts much of the blame on the shoulders of Gov. Baker and his Secretary of Health and Human Services, MaryLou Sudders, who, the report says, was more in charge of Walsh than was previously thought.

The latest federal and state Department of Public Health inspections of the Soldiers’ Home also reveal that problems with infection control persist even after the deadly outbreak.

All of this means there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The family members and the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition have taken a strong position that the state veteran homes should fall under the state DPH and that it must be managed day-to-day by health care experts with direct oversight by a health care institution with a clear reporting line. They also believe governance of the Soldiers’ Home must include representation from the veteran community it is supposed to serve.

“The state still has a long way to go to make things right,” says Turgeon. “We’re not finished. Not by a long shot. We owe it to our fathers.”

On Thursday, of last week, Laurie celebrated her father’s birthday. She went to the Red Rose in Springfield, one of her father’s favorite places. There, she reminisced about all the good times she had with her father and the near daily visits with him at the Soldiers’ Home.

In the past year, Laurie says she and other family members have gone through every emotion imaginable — helplessness, anxiety, depression, guilt and anger.

Angry that the state hasn’t taken more urgent action, angry that things were broken at the Home for many years and weren’t fixed, and, yes, angry that the governor still hasn’t visited with family members or has truly listened to their concerns.

But she knows her anger isn’t going to bring her dad back.

She wishes she could have just one more day with him. One more day to say how great a father and friend he was. One more Father’s Day to say, “I love you.”

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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