First veterans home run by state of Hawaii opens
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — The Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home officially opened yesterday with the presentation of a flag to the widow of the World War II hero who gave the new home its name.
The 95-bed, long-term-care home was named after Medal of Honor recipient Yukio Okutsu, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who spent 18 months fighting in Italy. He was honored for his courage in destroying three German machine gun positions on Mount Belvedere during a battle on April 7, 1945.
More than 600 people turned out to attend yesterday's Veterans Day opening ceremony and tour the new facility, which is next to Hilo Medical Center and is the first veterans home operated by the state government in Hawai'i.
Many of the spectators at the event wore the vests, caps and parts of old uniforms decorated with the combat infantryman's badges and other medals of wartime veterans.
Among them was Army veteran Dale Wilson, 56, who served as both an officer and an enlisted man during his 22 years of service. He was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in Vietnam in 1970.
Walking carefully and slowly with a cane, Wilson lined up with the rest of the crowd to inspect the gleaming dining rooms, dayroom, barber shop and living units of the new 64,000-square-foot facility. He approved.
"This is big day for our veterans here on the island because it's very difficult to find affordable facilities like this for veterans. To have Hawai'i at last get off the dime and put one in is a very important step," Wilson said.
"Because we have so few legislators who have served in the military left, it's difficult for them to comprehend just how hard being a military person, especially in a combat unit, is on the body," Wilson said. "It just exacts a horrible toll."
The Hawai'i Health Systems Corp. is contracting with Avalon Health Care Inc. to operate the facility, which is expected to fill up to close to capacity over the next 18 months, said Thomas Driskill Jr., HHSC's president and chief executive officer.
The federal government paid about two-thirds of the $33 million it cost to build and equip the facility, and Driskill said he expects the veterans home will break even by collecting payments for long-term care for veterans from the Veterans Administration, Medicare, Medicaid and from the veterans themselves.
State officials predicted two years ago the facility would have a staff of about 125, but Driskill said yesterday Avalon now expects to employ only about 60 part-time and full-time workers.
Gov. Linda Lingle joined Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, state adjutant general of the Hawai'i National Guard, who made the United States Army Medal of Honor Flag presentation to a bowing Elaine Okutsu, Yukio Okutsu's widow. Yukio Okutsu died in Hilo in 2003 at age 81.
U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Timothy J. Keating read the list of names of Hawai'i Medal of Honor winners, whom he called "towering examples of service before self."
"Those of us in uniform today understand the commitment, the honor, the courage and the sacrifice of our veterans," he said. "It is with that in mind that I thank our veterans for what they have done for us ... and I pledge to each and every one of you veterans and your families, we who have the privilege of standing watch will not take for granted, ever, your service and your sacrifice.
"We will never forget. God bless our veterans, God bless those who provide this wonderful home of the brave for our veterans, and may he continue to shower his blessings on our United States of America," Keating said.
William McRay, a disabled Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy and now runs a shuttle service to help provide transportation to veterans, said he hopes one day Hawai'i will have a veterans home on each island so that veterans can live near their families.
"This is really great, this is really going to help over here, and we have a lot of vets," McRay said.
Wilson said he hopes the new home will be successful, "and we'll be able to get another one going on O'ahu. I don't think one is going to be enough.
"I certainly hope that people won't forget when our guys come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and their bodies start breaking down because of things that they did when they were young, that the effort will be there for them," Wilson said.
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.