Holyoke Soldiers’ Home marks Memorial Day with solemn video tribute

  • Veterans lay a wreath in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home virtual Memorial Day observance. FACEBOOK/SOLDIERS’ HOME IN HOLYOKE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/23/2020 2:56:23 PM

HOLYOKE — In the shadow of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 74 elderly veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in recent weeks, the facility marked Memorial Day this year with a solemn video tribute Friday evening to American service members who have died in the line of duty and veterans who passed away over the past year.

“COVID-19 has caused a tremendous rip through the hearts of so many people at (the) Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and across our state and throughout the nation,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in the 15-minute video posted on the Soldiers’ Home Facebook page. “I can tell you that we share the sense of sorrow and loss that I know so many carry as a result of the impact of COVID-19.”

The annual Memorial Day observance at the Soldiers’ Home traditionally features families of veteran residents who have passed returning to the state-run long-term care facility to see staff and say final goodbyes, according to Emily Moriarty, a nurse at the Soldiers’ Home, speaking at the beginning of the video. This year, however, in the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak that ravaged the home and ruled out in-person gatherings, the day was marked over the internet.

Since March, a total of 90 veterans living at the home have died, 74 of whom tested positive for COVID-19. Another 77 veteran residents have tested positive for the deadly and infectious disease, along with 84 employees.

Superintendent Bennett Walsh was placed on paid leave from the Soldiers’ Home in March by the state and an incident command structure was set up in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. Families and workers at the Soldiers’ Home had repeatedly raised alarms about staffing issues at the facility in years past, as documented in a recent report by the Pioneer Institute. Federal and state investigations into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are currently underway.

Improvements costing up to $2 million are currently being made to the facility to improve infection control, according to state officials. The facility is also hiring for several management positions, and officials are discussing a potential drop in the home’s resident capacity. 

In the video, Baker reflected on the opportunities he had over the past five years to visit residents and staff at the Soldiers’ Home. 

“This year, of course, everything’s virtual. It has to be virtual,” Baker said. “I certainly hope at some point we can get back to something where we can share a laugh, a story and the kind of close personal interaction that has made Holyoke Soldiers’ Home such a very special place for so many, for so many years.”

The virtual observance featured many employees, administrators and residents of the home. Following a montage of different people saying parts of the Pledge of Allegiance and a rendition of the national anthem by Michele Hall, a recreation therapist at the home, Massachusetts Army National Guard chaplain Capt. Jacob Brooks offered a prayer.

Val Liptak, the Soldiers’ Home’s interim administrator, thanked the National Guard, the Holyoke Medical Center and the various businesses and community organizations that she said “became part of our family” in the past year.

“The entire Soldiers’ Home team wishes everyone could have gathered together today to honor your loved ones,” Liptak said. “May you know the memories shared with all of the veterans who have lived here are cherished by everyone at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.”

Before the names of the veterans who died at the home since last year’s ceremony flashed on the screen, nurses and other staff recited the poem “Requiem” by Lenore Hetrick.

“Let our songs rise sweet and gently/For soldiers gone who once were here/Let the music whisper softly/For this flowering springtime of the year,” they read.

Navy veteran Roger Cote, along with Army veterans Eugene Murphy, Scott Himmelman and William Buckley, also laid a wreath in the video while “Taps” played in the background.

The virtual ceremony was closed out by a rendition of “God Bless America” sung by Soldiers’ Home resident and Navy veteran Raymond A. Benoit, along with an unidentified worker, accompanied by Sarah Michel, a recreation therapist at the facility, on the violin. 

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 
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