Editorial: Our veterans deserve better

  • Wreaths, signs and flags are part of a memorial at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, May 12, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/11/2020 9:24:12 AM

More than 30 hours after learning of the coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Susan Kenney of Ware said she still couldn’t get an answer as to whether her father was alive in the home. Distraught, she wrote on all the windows of her car, “Is my father dead or alive?” and started driving to the facility. Her father, Charles Lowell, died of COVID-19 at the home on April 15.

Roberta Twining said her husband Timothy, a 77-year-old veteran living at the home who contracted the virus but recovered, was moved five times during the outbreak and at one point had no water, wheelchair or buzzer and “literally had to crawl over to the wall to get to the bathroom down the hall.”

Erin Schadel’s father, Francis “Skip” Hennessy, who contracted coronavirus and survived, lost his hearing aids, eyeglasses, clothing and picture of his wife during multiple moves around the Soldiers’ Home during the crisis. He was transferred to a COVID-positive floor and recovered and begged not be sent back to his original floor. “He would comment, ‘If only you knew,’” Schadel recalled. “And then he would stop talking about it.”

Anyone who paid attention to the recent testimony of veterans’ families and former and current staff of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke should be outraged. For two weeks in October, state lawmakers on a joint oversight committee listened as families of some of the 76 veterans who died from the coronavirus outbreak at the facility and others who survived earlier this year shared their pain and heartbreaking stories of loss.

Employees, 84 of whom contracted the virus, described being overworked and the trauma they experienced watching the people they cared for die. “It was a disaster,” Theresa King, a nurse, told lawmakers of the outbreak. She explained that as the virus spread, families were desperate for information, but that management barred staff from providing it to them.

The committee also heard from Paul Barbani, the former Soldiers’ Home superintendent, who testified that he encountered drastic understaffing and a lack of funding that jeopardized patient care when he became superintendent in 2011. He said he was even reprimanded in December 2014 by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders for discussing understaffing in front of state lawmakers. He retired early a year later in protest over the issue.

Today is Veterans Day, the holiday that honors veterans for their service every Nov. 11.

It may be convenient for some to associate the catastrophe at the Soldiers’ Home with the trials and tribulations that many nursing homes around the country faced when the COVID-19 virus spread, including at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea where dozens of veterans also died. But that is not the narrative at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. What has happened at the state-run facility this year is more than a human tragedy caused by an insidious and uncontrollable virus. It is a story of neglect and failure that goes to the highest levels of state government.

As state officials continue to point fingers and lay blame through investigations and by bringing criminal neglect charges against former superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director David Clinton, many of the fundamental problems at the nearly 70-year-old Soldiers’ Home remain.

The probes are necessary to better understand what happened during the worst of the outbreak and to learn from the failures in decision-making within and outside the home. However, larger solutions are still needed at the Soldiers’ Home to ensure our most vulnerable veterans are taken care of with the dignity and respect they deserve.

An independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker found that leadership made “substantial errors” that likely contributed to the death toll at the facility, that Walsh “was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility” and that high-ranking Baker administration officials failed to act decisively when informed of the developing crisis.

Given what we know, the resignations this year of Bennett, Clinton and Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Urena were a step in the right direction, as they lost the public trust. Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker appointed two new Soldiers’ Home trustees: Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, who is adjunct general for the Massachusetts National Guard, and Lt. Col. Mark Bigda, a Southampton physician who serves in the Massachusetts Air National Guard as a flight surgeon. They follow the July appointment of Brig. Gen. Sean T. Collins, a nurse practitioner who is the Air National Guard assistant to the deputy surgeon general, to the board.

And in October, Baker appointed Cheryl Lussier Poppe as secretary of veterans’ services to replace Urena. Poppe is a 30-year veteran of the Massachusetts National Guard who retired with the rank of colonel and is familiar with the Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, having held leadership positions at both facilities in the past.

The new leadership, including those managing the critical work inside the Soldiers’ Home, is welcome and comes with heavy responsibility. Moving forward, these administrators and trustees need to listen to the concerns of those working on the front lines and act on them. They need to pay attention to details. In addition, the state needs to make the long-overdue capital improvements at the Soldiers’ Home a major priority, which a coalition of veterans’ families and advocates have been calling on the state to implement.

Many veterans will be isolated this year as traditional parades, in-person ceremonies and pancake breakfasts have been canceled due to the pandemic. But the commonwealth can do something to recognize their sacrifices. It can pause and take a moment to reflect today, and as a new year begins, think about how better to take care of them.


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