Daytona Beach-area veterans find brotherhood and help at Emory L. Bennett Memorial Veterans Nursing Home.
DAYTONA BEACH — Underneath Orval Stuhr’s beat-up blue baseball cap bedecked with World War II medals is a razor-sharp mind that can pull up 75-year-old memories in dramatic detail.
Stuhr was a flight engineer who repaired B-24 bombers while they were roaring through the clouds, and he clearly remembers his first early 1940s mission.
“We came back with 100 bullet holes in the plane,” said the 94-year-old, who was in the U.S. Army Air Corps from early 1943 until the end of 1945.
Stuhr was five months out of high school when he joined the military, and the bloody battlefields of Europe rattled the teenager who was born in Minnesota and moved to the sleepy town of Pierson in northwest Volusia County when he was 13.
“I know I was scared to death anytime I went out on a raid,” said Stuhr, who ended up going on 33 missions and was never injured.
When Stuhr tells his war stories nowadays, he’s surrounded by the understanding ears of people who’ve been on the business end of a machine gun. For the past five and a half years he’s been a resident of the Emory L. Bennett Memorial Veterans’ Nursing Home located near the intersection of Williamson Boulevard and Mason Avenue. The air inside the nursing home will be thick with the tales of war Monday when the nation celebrates Veterans Day.
Currently, 119 veterans call the facility named for a Medal of Honor winner their home. They have ended up in the 26-year-old nursing home because of different health maladies, but they quickly bond over their days in the military.
“There’s 120 people here and 120 stories, but we all speak the same language,” Stuhr said. “We all went through hell and back. We did what we were supposed to, and we got back.”
’People don’t know we exist’
Emory Bennett is one of six state-owned Veterans Administration nursing homes in Florida, including one in St. Augustine. Two more are under construction.
Veterans of any age who live in Florida, have a medical problem that qualifies for nursing home care and had an honorable discharge can become residents of one of the VA nursing homes. Female veterans are also welcome, but because far fewer women served in the military in decades past most of the homes are dominated by men.
It can be a place for veterans with nowhere else to go.
Those who have a VA disability rating of 70-100 percent aren’t charged anything to live in the nursing homes. Veterans with ratings below 70 percent, or no rating, are charged based on their income, but under VA rules pay no more than $212 per day. That’s lower than the actual cost of care at the Emory Bennett nursing home, and well below the daily charge in private nursing homes.
“A lot of people are 70-100 percent disabled and in private nursing homes and don’t know we exist,” said E. Gray Kilpatrick, the administrator of Emory Bennett.
The Daytona Beach facility, which runs on a $13.5 million annual budget, ensures residents have at least $105 per month left over for any personal expenses they have, Kilpatrick said.
Area residents provide about 10,000 hours of volunteer services every year to the facility. Dozens of volunteers come in for poker games with the veterans, to barbecue outside, to provide entertainment or just to give residents someone to talk to.
Staff members regularly get residents out for fun activities including movies, baseball games, fishing, skeet shooting and dining at restaurants.
A wide array of care is offered at Emory Bennett: medical, dental, mental health, dietary, occupational therapy, physical therapy, podiatry, speech pathology, therapeutic activities and X-rays. There’s also a pharmacy on site.
Residents get three hearty meals a day in a dining room, there’s a room full of games and DVDs, a library and even a barber shop. All personal hygiene items such as shampoo and toothbrushes are provided, and there’s a “store” full of donated clothing and shoes where residents can pick out garments free of charge.
Residents who can get outside enjoy a 30-acre property nestled in a thicket of tall trees. There is a courtyard in the middle of the one-story complex and a pavilion in front of the facility.
That pavilion will be the site of the nursing home’s Veterans Day celebration from 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Monday. The event will include speakers and music, and is open to the public.
Over the past decade, Emory Bennett home has undergone extensive renovations and upgrades tallying more than $5 million. Improvements have included everything from resident room makeovers to re-landscaping the property.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) uses a five-star quality rating system to measure the experiences beneficiaries have with their health plan and health care system. The Emory Bennett nursing home has received an overall rating of five stars, the highest.
The Daytona facility has also received the Silver Award, Kilpatrick said. That’s a quality rating honor the American Healthcare Association has bestowed this year upon only 120 of the 17,000 nursing homes nationwide, he said.
’A purpose for all of us being here’
Parts of the nursing home feel homey, such as the small library that has large windows overlooking the courtyard. Other parts, out of necessity, are more hospital-like.
The smell of alcohol wafts through the air. So many residents are in wheelchairs that a lot of tables don’t have chairs around them.
But for residents, it’s a friendly world where they make friends and find a new kind of life.
Most of Stuhr’s friends at Emory Bennett are younger than him. He’s one of only about five World War II veterans at the nursing home, the last of a fading generation. A female veteran at the nursing home who was a World War II nurse died about a week ago.
Most residents served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. One of them is Alfonso Christopher, who grew up in Buffalo, NY.
Christopher learned to fix and fly airplanes from a young age, and he spent much of his career working at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls. The 84-year-old served in both Korea and Vietnam as a crew chief in the Naval Air Forces.
Two of Christopher’s uncles served in World War II, one as a Marine and one as a paratrooper who became a German prisoner of war.
The military and war have been a big part of Christopher’s life, but in an interview last week he was much more interested in talking about planes than his days as a soldier.
“War is war,” he said. “When they’re over that’s great. My family did their job.”
Richard Perchaluk served in the Air Force from 1965-1969.
It’s not an old war injury that brought the 75-year-old originally from New Jersey to the nursing home. He had a hip replaced, and then he was struck with Parkinson’s Disease.
“It just got worse and worse,” Perchaluk said. “This is exactly where I should be.”
He said he has fun at the nursing home playing bingo and poker, and he tries to help all the veterans around him however he can.
“There’s a purpose for all of us being here,” said Perchaluk, who strongly considered being a priest when he was young. “You can do good deeds wherever you are.”
One of the youngest residents at the nursing home is 61-year-old Joe Casanova. The New York native spent three years on active duty in the Army stationed in Germany and 20 years in the Army Reserve.
He was in Germany in November 1989 when the wall that cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany was toppled after standing for 28 years.
Ten years ago, Casanova was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Three years ago, he moved into Emory Bennett. It became too difficult for his wife, who lives in DeLand, to pick him up.
She visits every other day, and they frequently do things together outside the nursing home. He said it’s been very interesting living among veterans who have shared so much world history with him.
“I would just like to say how lucky I am to be with all these vets and how proud I am,” Casanova said.
The veterans are traveling through the final chapter of their lives feeling they accomplished things that really mattered. Stuhr has a story for every medal on his navy blue ball cap.
“This hat doesn’t look like much, but it means a lot to me,” he said.
Stuhr’s life now couldn’t be much farther from the tumult and danger of World War II battles. He uses a wheelchair to get around, and he fills his days running the nursing home library, performing with the facility’s “Singing Vets” choir and serving as president of the Emory Bennett resident council.
He’s been widowed twice, but he has two sons who live nearby, three grandchildren and two great grandsons — identical twins — born two weeks ago. He’s happy, and he’s OK with living in the nursing home.
“I have enjoyed it from day one,” he said. “We accept what we have and make the most of it.”