Up to 300 people -- many of them veterans -- attended Tuesday's dedication ceremony for the N.C. State Veterans Home in Kinston. State officials expect the first residents to arrive at the facility next month after all furniture and equipment is installed. Gov. Bev Perdue and a number of state, federal and local dignitaries were present to cut the ribbon on the 100-bed home, which will employ up to 175 people.
It was less "mom and apple pie" and more "barbecue and Charlie Smith."
Much was said during the grand opening of the N.C. State Veterans Home in Kinston Tuesday, and there was no shortage of thanks for the hundreds of veterans in attendance. Most of the attendees either served in Vietnam or during the Vietnam era, and there was a steady amount of excitement in the line stretching to get into the opening ceremony.
But once every seat was taken, and those who couldn't find one crowded near the doors to the activity room, the only topics to be shared more by visiting officials than thanking the veterans themselves were former N.C. Assistant Secretary for Veterans Affairs Charlie Smith and Eastern North Carolina barbecue.
"Somebody I'd really like to single out and point out is my predecessor, Charlie Smith," said Tim Wipperman, who currently occupies the position. "The great thing about Charlie is he did most of the heavy lifting to make this thing a reality, and then graciously retired so I could stand up here and take the credit. I'm grateful for all that Charlie has done for veterans for literally decades in this state."
N.C. Department of Administration Secretary Moses Carey said Smith introduced him to the veterans homes project the moment he joined the department. An effort more than a decade in the making, there are now state veterans homes in Salisbury, Fayetteville, Black Mountain and Kinston.
Gov. Bev. Perdue said North Carolina has the third-highest military population of any state in the country, and when it was time to ask what the state could do for its veterans, "That's where Charlie Smith comes in."
Dr. Tommy Sowers is a Duke graduate and two-tour veteran of Iraq as a Green Beret. As assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs, he represented VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and President Barack Obama at the event. Sowers said while stationed at Ft. Bragg, he made about half a dozen detours to Wilson.
"My uncle told me, 'Hey, look -- they don't make good barbecue down around Fayetteville. You need to drive up north to Wilson and go to Parker's Barbecue,'" Sowers said. He added that he was introduced to Wilber's Barbecue on the way in for the event.
Perdue had her own response.
"I'm glad he ate some Wilber's barbecue -- in fact, he ought to go across the street to King's before he makes the local folks mad," she said.
Sowers said the idea of having regional veterans' homes is that you shouldn't have to be far away from those indelible marks of home.
"For the folks who call Eastern North Carolina their home, and like the taste of barbecue around here, they shouldn't have to drive, and their families shouldn't have to drive to come see them," Sowers said.
Perdue said the goal of putting homes where veterans' families were was a driving factor in the consideration for locating the facilities.
"We obviously wanted to put them where the people -- the families, the friends, the loved ones -- could support veterans at these facilities. Could get to them, on a Sunday afternoon or a Tuesday night, or a church group might know who they were -- we wanted to do it the old North Carolina way," Perdue said.
The effort of local government officials was also key to the location of what ended up being the fourth of four veterans homes built under the plan started by Smith. Lenoir County Commissioner and N.C. House Rep.-elect George Graham, D-Lenoir, said bringing the jobs associated with the home to the community was thanks to many local residents who volunteered their time to make sure the next veterans home made it to Kinston.
"So, it was a long journey," Perdue said. "As luck has it, or as the history books would tell it, poor old Eastern North Carolina got ours last. But we got ours best. I want you to know that."
The state partnered with UHS-Pruitt to run the first veterans' home built in 1999, and the same company will handle day-to-day operations at the Kinston veterans home. Neill Pruitt, chairman and CEO of UHS-Pruitt, saw plenty of different assisted-care facilities in his time as chairman of the American Health Care Association.
"In that role, we represent providers who service about 1.9 million Americans across the country," Pruitt said. "I've had the opportunity to travel all across the nation, from Boston to Sacramento, from Seattle to New Bern, and I can tell you, Governor, there's no finer facility in this nation than where we're here today."
At the opening of the event, N.C. State Elks President Bob Gower handed over the keys to a donated van to James Woodard, N.C. State Veterans Homes program manager.
"This is our fourth home, and at each of the homes (the Elks) have given vans and busses to every home that we've opened so far," Woodard said. "As well, the TVs -- they're not up yet, but the TVs that go in each room for this building here, they donated that as well. Also, they've done a lot for our state nursing homes, and we do appreciate it."
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, though she did not attend, sent a letter saying, "The opening of this home will help ensure more North Carolina veterans can be served closer to home and closer to their friends and family. Just as importantly, with the addition of almost 200 health services positions, this facility will help get North Carolina back to work."
However, in a typo, the letter references the home's location in "Western North Carolina." The veterans' home in Black Mountain, Buncombe County, opened on Oct. 25.