By CHRIS CHANCELLOR
Bill Nickerson cringes at the memory when he moved from his native Seattle to Washington Veterans Home at Retsil in 1996. It was a much different setup than veterans living there now know.
“I thought the thing was going to fall down around us,” Nickerson said.
It’s no longer Nickerson’s concern regarding the Washington State Veterans Home at Retsil, which was originally constructed in 1910. In 2005, the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs finished a $47 million project adding 240 new beds and 170,000 square feet to the veterans’ home overlooking the water.
Nickerson, 79, is among the longest tenured residents at Retsil, which is one of three veterans homes in the state. The other two are in Orting and Spokane; and a significant effort is being made by some in the Legislature and the state VA to get a home built in Walla Walla.
For many of Retsil’s 263 veteran residents, the home and its bluff-top grounds is their final living arrangement in life.
Nickerson experienced a lot in life, and of course during combat. But, there is one element of life in Retsil that fazes him; death.
He twice has walked in to discover his roomate had died. Now the old sailor has become wary of becoming too close with fellow veterans living at the home. For those reasons he now lives in a single room, which became available after another veteran died.
While those scenarios are uncontrollable, Nickerson and several other veterans mostly were effusive in their praise of the care they receive at Retsil.
Richard and Vivian Best, both are 85, started life in Restil in January 2011 after she suffered a stroke. Both initially had some reservations moving into the veterans home.
“I couldn’t open a door when I came here,” Vivian Best said. “The nurses work hard to keep your spirits up. I’m so thankful to God that I came here.”
Don Olson, 89, who served in the Army from 1943-46, came to Retsil two years ago after his wife fell and fractured her hip. Similar to Richard Best, Olson knew he would not be able to care for his wife alone.
The couple visited Retsil with their daughters and immediately were convinced it was the right fit for them.
“It looked like a good place,” he said. “Everyone looked like they knew each other.
“A lot of the [time in] service wasn’t as gentle as this place. You see 150 people and they know your name. It’s kind of scary.”
Olson is impressed with how quickly the staff was able to place them in a two-bedroom apartment, which included a living room and bathroom – four days for the staff to set it up.
Others, such as Nickerson, also reported a quick turnaround from the time he inquired about moving in to finding an apartment quickly.
Once veterans — their spouses or widows also are welcomed — move in, one of the biggest draws is the location itself. Retsil rests on a 31-acre bluff above Beach Drive, which features clear views of Puget Sound.
“I love the beauty here,” said Vivian Best, who frequently gets up to read and meditate during the morning. “This is an amazing place for this time in our lives.”
Nickerson said he also likes Retsil’s proximity to downtown Port Orchard, which is about a 5-minute drive and leaves the campus once or twice per week to eat lunch and get a pack of cigarettes.
“Just for my independence,” he said.
The staff at Retsil also plan organized outings for the residents. Olson said those are voluntary and he likes how the residents get to plan those events. In September, they had a planned outing to go to the Puyallup Fair. Other events have varied from visits to casinos to the Puget Sound Navy Museum. Nickerson said the staff also receives a calendar listing daily activities each month.
“If you want to do an activity every day, you can,” said Nickerson, adding that many are intended to stimulate residents from a mental and physical standpoint.
Vivian Best said the staff also tries to incorporate activities for bedridden residents.
“I used to do some social work and I’ve never seen a place that puts on so many activities,” she said.
There also are regular ice-cream socials that feature strong turnouts.
“Some of them had a really tough road and others had a good life,” Olson said. “They don’t talk much about the service.”
Nickerson, who worked as a general railway clerk after he completed his military service, spends three hours per day twice weekly employed in the facility’s library.
“I’ve got to have something to do or I go batty,” he said.
The residents appreciate other services at Retsil, as well. Vivian Best, who has food allergies, said the staff always is aware of what she can eat. She and Nickerson also appreciate how Retsil provides religious services. There is an onsite chapel.
“We want to make sure we’re fulfilling every desire we possibly can,” Superintendent Don Veverka said.
The superintendent position actually is one that has caused the most consternation among residents. Richard Shreder lasted only 10 months on the job until he left in March 2008 – it is unclear whether his departure was voluntary. He was succeeded by Al Knight that July, but he needed three attempts to pass the requisite national nursing home administrator’s test, which he accomplished in September 2010 before resigning the following April 2011. Jon Clontz, who was the Veterans Administration’s director of home operations, then took over as the administrator, but he left a year ago to become Oregon Lottery’s director.
Enter Veverka, 64, who served as an Army corpsman from 1968-70, and was running a retirement home in Grants Pass, Ore., when he got a call from John Lee, director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, to inquire whether Veverka was interested in the position. Veverka’s wife is the former Jill Tallman, who graduated in 1970 from South Kitsap High School and whose family has longstanding ties to Olalla. Veverka said his wife was elated about the opportunity and they decided to buy a house on Banner Road that is equidistant to Retsil and Olalla.
Nickerson, who works on the VA’s advisory committee, said Veverka’s military experience is an important component to the job. He said he was among those who lobbied politicians to make it a requirement of the superintendent’s job.
“You can identify with your residents,” Veverka said. “You can understand the culture. You can empathize in a way others can’t.”
Veverka said one of the biggest challenges he has faced is creating a culture of trust within a facility that has lacked stability in recent years. He said he has worked a variety of jobs and has no interest in pursuing any other opportunities. Veverka noted that his 93-year-old mother is moving from Southern California to Retsil.
“I’m here because I love making a difference in the lives of people,” he said. “I’m not eager to go anywhere else. As long as [the residents] continue to put up with me, I’m happy to be here.”
Veverka said it is not a job he can do alone and he wants to bring out the best in his staff by empowering them.
“If we can inspire each other to make a difference each day we come to work, these individuals will be the recipients of our outstanding service,” he said.
That does not just include permanent residents. Veverka said Retsil serves “an interesting cross-section of needs,” which ranges from assisted living to a secured dementia program. He said many are sent by hospitals to rehabilitate from surgeries.
“We serve a diverse population,” Veverka said.
He has held some prestigious positions in 35 years in the business, but he said Retsil already is among his favorites.
“Over the years, I have said nothing is more rewarding than serving the population that gave all of us life,” Veverka said. “Now, I have the privilege of not only serving those who have given us life, but have also given us freedom. What can be more rewarding than that?”