Although state officials estimate there are up to 800,000 veterans living in North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue told the audience at Tuesday's dedication ceremony the N.C. State Veterans Home in Kinston is the "latest and probably last for a while."
The 100-bed Kinston facility is the fourth state-owned "skilled nursing facility" for veterans to open since 1999. Nursing homes of similar sizes are in operation in Fayetteville, Salisbury and Black Mountain.
The homes are managed and staffed by a private contractor, United Veterans Service of N.C. Inc., a subsidiary of Georgia-based UHS-Pruitt. The N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs oversees the contractor and provides a veterans' service officer in each home to assist residents.
All other employees, including the up to 175 staffers of the Kinston home, are employees of UHS-Pruitt.
Perdue told the audience state officials' goal was to serve veterans and their families in each region of the state, and Kinston's home is designated for Eastern North Carolina.
"Home life is what we determined to make it, and home life it is," the governor said of the level of care.
Moses Carey, secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration -- the parent agency of the Division of Veterans Affairs -- who spoke during Tuesday's ceremony, told The Free Press later that the state regularly updates its count of veterans living in North Carolina, and the current number is close to 800,000.
"As more people leave the military they settle in this area, so that number is growing daily," Carey said.
The $13 million facility was funded with a mix of state and federal funds, including federal stimulus dollars. Carey said "it requires a partnership" to fund the skilled nursing facilities, a major factor in why there are not more facilities planned for the future.
"It's the last one for a while but that doesn't mean it's the last one forever," he said of the Kinston home.
Carey said veterans can also obtain care through Veterans Administration hospitals around the state, or reside in private nursing homes, paid for by them or qualifying Medicaid or veterans' benefits.
Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Tuesday the VA received requests for more than $800 million in federal funds to support veterans nursing facilities around the country.
Sowers, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said the state nursing homes "are part of the entire continuum" of veterans care, which includes in-home care and telecare, which allows caregivers to remotely monitor patients using technology such as telephone alarms, monitors, sensors and more.
"This a beautiful facility, but we recognize veterans have varying needs of care and we want to provide that care in the best way the veteran wants it, and in a way that keeps them healthy," Sowers explained.
Up to 300 people attended Tuesday's dedication, many of them veterans. Several said they had applied to live in the Kinston home or felt the facility would meet their needs.
"This is going to come a long way in alleviating pressure among families of our most seriously ill veterans," said Eric Cantu, a Vietnam War veteran and commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2771.
Army veteran Roger Williams, 85, of Kinston, said the facility "would be perfect, I think, because I can't stand too long."
Williams, who served in the Army from 1945 to 1947, said both his feet had been amputated. He used a rollator walker to get around Tuesday, and had to sit on its padded seat while talking to The Free Press.
Williams was brought to the ceremony by his neighbor Sterling Phillips, who was in the Army from 1960 to 1962. Phillips said he thought the facility would help his friend.
"He would be with people," Phillips said of Williams. "He would have company and then he would have everything he needed, so I think it will be real nice for him."
George "Hound Dog" Dove, 82, of Kinston served as an Army infantryman during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. He was in the 5th Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division.
"I had two Christmases on the front lines," Dove said after Tuesday's ceremony.
Dove was riding an electric mobility scooter and said his doctor had been able to place him on a list of potential residents for the Kinston home. He earned a Bronze Star for bravery and two Purple Hearts from wounds sustained in Korea.
"I love it, plenty of room and everything," Dove said. "I really do, because I'm getting where I can't do things for myself."
Dean Smith, the administrator of the home, said residents must be evaluated individually by a physician to determine if they need the skilled or intermediate care provided at the home.
"We don't provide an assisted living or rest-home level of care," he said.
Twenty of the home's 100 beds make up the "memory support unit," designed for patients with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
"Those beds will take a lot of pressure off the community," explained Charlie Smith, who was the state's assistant secretary for veterans affairs when the Kinston project was conceived in 2007.
Smith retired in 2011 and was warmly welcomed during Tuesday's ceremony. He said the memory support unit will provide relief for a number of caregivers of Alzheimer's patients who are veterans.
He thanked local leaders and other state agencies for their assistance on the five-year odyssey to get the home open.
"There were obstacles that we had to get over but the community worked with us on those issues and was really helpful," he said.
Administrator Dean Smith has been reaching out to members of the community as well.
"I've found there's a lot of community support for the facility, a lot of respect for the military in this area," he said. "It's going to have a great economic impact on Kinston."