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Military golf course's members become its keepers

Golfers take to a green at Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. The grounds were established in 1851 for veterans.

MATT MCCLAIN/WASHINGTON POST PHOTO

By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: July 15, 2017

WASHINGTON — They're mowing the grass, running the golf shack and picking up equipment and balls.

Stubborn financial problems at the Armed Forces Retirement Home's golf course in northwest Washington have forced its members to do whatever it takes to save the nine-hole course.

Keeping the course open at what's commonly known as the Old Soldiers' Home now includes two hours of mandatory chores a week at the fairways, along with the $700 annual fee.

"We were presented with two options: Do nothing and the place closes down, or try to fix it up," said Shad Ewart, a community college professor who was mowing grass near the golf shack one day last month. He said he didn't mind pitching in.

"I didn't do military service, and these people - the residents - did," he said. "For me, this is just a little paying back."

But Todd Weiler, who until January was the assistant secretary of defense with oversight over the Armed Forces Retirement Home agency, called the arrangement "just bad business."

"The problem with the guys running the Old Soldiers' Home," Weiler said in an interview, "is that they're looking at this like, 'We'll get the residents to pitch in.' But you can't do that. This is not a volunteer community club or a nonprofit entity. This is a federal entity."

With views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome, the golf course at the 166-year-old military facility has always attracted a small crew of Washingtonians who like playing with the retirement home's military veterans and don't mind the meager amenities or wayward rough.

But last year, the Old Soldiers' Home resorted to asking its golf members to raise $250,000 in donations to save their 2017 tee times. Just $14,549 was raised through a crowdsource funding effort, though it's not clear if the money went to the golf course.

The fundraising campaign prompted Weiler to investigate the golf course's operations and the entire Armed Forces Retirement Home agency, which consists of the Washington campus and a second facility in Gulfport, Miss. Weiler also asked the Defense Department's inspector general to investigate.

Weiler's inquiry, concluded in November, found that the Armed Forces Retirement Home agency faces a projected loss of $247 million for fiscal years 2017 to 2025 and that there was a "lack of financial oversight and business acumen."

Christopher Kelly, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Retirement Home agency, said the organization is trying to improve its financial forecast by cutting costs and adding new revenue streams.

"The Armed Forces Retirement Home continues working diligently with Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and its Defense Department leadership to develop the best strategy to ensure long-term trust fund solvency," Kelly said in a statement.

For years, the Old Soldiers' Home has struggled with its finances. In 2015, it began seeking a partner to develop up to 80 acres of its valuable land, hoping to install retail and medical facilities, even a hotel. But the process stalled out over legal reasons.

Meanwhile, the Washington campus struggles to attract residents. Even though the Old Soldiers' Home has a capacity of 556 beds, its current occupancy is 374. Last year, the golf course membership was more than 200; now, there are 90 golfers - 30 of whom are residents and don't have to fulfill the volunteer requirement.

Weiler said he was startled to learn that the facility had been drawing from its trust fund to pay for the course's maintenance. The trust fund consists of congressionally appropriated money, fines and forfeitures imposed on military members, and 50-cent paycheck deductions from military enlistees.

Recreational activities at military bases are supposed to generate their own revenue, Weiler said. The Old Soldiers' Home golf course is the only one among more than 200 Defense Department installations around the world that had been relying primarily on government money.

Weiler ordered the home to stop using the trust fund for the golf course's upkeep. The directive triggered a drop-off in funding, prompting the Old Soldiers' Home to ask its members to volunteer at least two hours a week at the course.

Through a spokesman, David Tillotson III, who replaced Weiler as the Pentagon's overseer of the Armed Forces Retirement Home agency, declined to comment.

The retirement home agency is an independent establishment in the executive branch. But the agency's head, Chief Operating Officer Tim Kangas, must report to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Kangas declined an interview request.

Kelly, the agency's spokesman, said it wasn't improper to finance the golf course's maintenance with appropriated money from the trust fund, which it had been doing for more than 25 years. The organization's status as an executive agency frees it from Defense Department's policies largely barring taxpayer funds for recreational activities.

But those technicalities didn't matter to Weiler: "I knew they were violating Defense Department policy, but as they are going to point out, they don't have to abide by it. But I mean, do you need a specific law to tell you not to spend taxpayer money on a golf course?"

Before he left the Pentagon, Weiler explored the possibility of golf pros at the Andrews Air Force Base course in Maryland running the Old Soldiers' Home course. But Weiler said the Andrews pros said they needed about $300,000 to improve the golf course to attract more members and justify higher fees.

When Weiler couldn't find a military branch willing to chip in the $300,000, he considered shutting down the course or selling or leasing the land.

This spring, after Weiler left his job, the golf course's members were told they had to start volunteering at the course if they wanted to keep golfing. According to the minutes of a May meeting attended by the home's golfers, the new volunteer requirement is nonnegotiable.

"If you are not comfortable with the new rules and means of operation, don't apply," the minutes read under a section for new member applications. Another part of the document for questions-and-answers says: "Instead of volunteering, can people pay more? No."

Last month, Ken White, 60, a resident of the home and a Navy veteran, was perched on a wide-area lawn mower, shaving down a fairway. He cuts the grass three days a week. He loves the Old Soldiers' Home and feels pride in helping out.

"I realize the world that we're in, and everyone's worried about budgets. I wish there was more funding," he said. "They all pledge to help the veterans, and this is the one thing they should do."

After performing his volunteer mowing duties, Shad Ewart practices his golf swing on the golf course at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. Last year, the Defense Department threatened to shut down the course, unless its members raised $250,000, the amount needed to maintain its fairways and golf shack.
LINDA DAVIDSON/WASHINGTON POST PHOTO

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