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Debate over spending on new Holyoke Soldiers' Home creates split among veterans advocates

By STEPHANIE BARRY | The Republican | Published: March 24, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — In a rare show of dissent, the veterans services community has been splintered by a debate over Gov. Charlie Baker's $400 million bond bill for a new Holyoke Soldiers' Home.

During a March 16 legislative committee meeting — the first public vetting of the bond bill, a harbinger of things to come in the pandemic-driven push to build a new facility — a leader of the Disabled American Veterans offered tepid support of the bond bill. The response to the bill Baker filed in February met with sudden pushback, dividing what is typically a united community.

Jesse Flynn, legislative director and assistant adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, told the the Legislature's Joint Committee on Administration and Regulatory Oversight his agency had concerns over that amount of money being poured into one project in a discreet part of the state. He argued veterans in the southeastern part of Massachusetts had long been neglected.

Join the club, Western Massachusetts delegates replied.

"If you want to have a long, long conversation about that, we'll have it in Western Mass.," said state Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat and new chairman of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

Flynn has since said his organization supports the Holyoke bond bill, but only if it includes language for veterans in other parts of the state.

"It's hard to be part of reform," Flynn said.

The backlash to Flynn's remarks was swift after months of furious work by state officials and members of a grassroots coalition to push the capital project through. The urgency increased after nearly 80 Holyoke Soldiers' Home veterans died after contracting COVID-19 last spring. State officials are facing a mid-April deadline to secure $260 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration for a new facility.

"We are on going to be on the wrong side of history on this," said Michael Raymond, director of veterans services for the city of Mansfield, also a member of the Disabled American Veterans and solidly in the geographic area to which Flynn and his allies are sensitive. "Why don't we just start telling people we're going to beat puppies? I mean, really? I was ashamed of this organization for the first time."

Like many veterans, Raymond belongs to several military organizations.

Raymond said the issue was not raised nor voted upon during the most recent quarterly executive council meeting of the Disabled American Veterans. Leaders with the agency confirmed his account.

The agency says it has 67,000 members in Massachusetts. To qualify, members must have been injured in a war or conflict.

The response to Flynn's commentary was unusual since veterans' groups are usually on the same page when it comes to veterans' issues. The Disabled American Veterans' position, supported by Commander Debora Olsen, is complicated: yes, they support the Holyoke Soldiers' Home project but not at the expense of veterans elsewhere in Massachusetts. The debate has caused a conundrum among several veterans groups that overlap and all receive public funding.

In addition to a very vocal grassroots organization called the Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition, formed in the wake of the pandemic, most veterans organizations have enthusiastically supported the project. Poor management and a cramped, bad physical footprint have been blamed, in part, for the death toll at the state-run facility.

The bond bill, H.64, has been presented as a mea culpa for the tragedy. Velis, the coalition, and dozens of other lawmakers support building a new home in Holyoke. The Disabled American Veterans still insists it joins the cause.

But the organization asked, instead, for a joint committee to look for an analysis to look at the statewide needs for veterans.

"This investigation should be an extensive examination into the structure and the governing policies of the soldiers' homes," a statement from the organization reads.

But advocates for the new new Holyoke Soldiers' Home say now is not the time to run interference on the project.

Jesus Pereira, director of Holyoke Veterans Services, said Flynn's comments at the March 16 meeting were offensive to those who had fought for funding in the region.

"At the 11th hour trying to dismantle current needs of Western Massachusetts that has been worked on and ignored historically. Add when I say ignored, I mean ignored," he said.

"These retirees on the Cape, I think they're doing OK," Pereira added. "The vets I deal with — I'm giving them gas cards and gift cards to buy groceries. It's a different population. About 15 percent of my vets are indigent. Their timing absolutely stinks."

The debate over the Holyoke Soldiers' Home has been fraught with families' pain, and complicated by bureaucracy. The Chelsea Soldiers' Home project was launched nearly three years ago at a cost of $200 million. There was only applause from veterans' groups. In fact, a group of hundreds of military types packed a room to support that project, while the pandemic essentially forced the Holyoke debate into a vacuum.

Velis, now a freshman senator and formerly a state representative, finds himself in the middle of the storm.

"The irony here is that for so many years the DAV had representatives working at Veterans Assistance Center at the Soldiers' Home. So they know firsthand why this project is so desperately needed and why anything else won't suffice. My sincere hope is that they come around and come to understand how important this project is," Velis said.

The disabled veterans organization is one of several Congressionally sanctioned agencies that receive public money. Other such organizations include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the American Legion — and some are nonplussed over the position of the Disabled American Veterans.

Sgt. Brian Willette, of South Hadley, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Department of Massachusetts, said he was surprised by Flynn's attack on the Holyoke project.

"I really couldn't believe it," said Willette, after being asked to testify last week.

Willette, a Purple Heart recipient who was injured when his armored vehicle got hit by an explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010, told members of the legislative committee that he took it "personally" when the Disabled American Veterans assailed the project. He then faced angst from Flynn in response to a Facebook post about the matter.

"If you have something to say it's better you man up and contact me directly," Flynn told him in an email. Willette cautioned him not to make it personal.

Eric Segundo, a former statewide commander of the VFW and director of veterans' services in Ludlow, said he recalls ushering the national commander to the Chelsea site in 2018 to support the initiative.

"This was a highlight. We brought the national commander to Chelsea because it was that important," Segundo said.

"Any deviation of this plan is betrayal ... it was a good faith arrangement that involved many, many people. We raised a drink when Governor Baker passed the bond bill for Chelsea," Willette said.

Willette has said he hopes the veterans' service community in Massachusetts will become more aligned.

"We are quite splintered. This might be a lesson for us," Willette said. "I think that on the legislative level, we don't communicate as much as we should ... I think that's a deficiency on our part."

John Paradis, a leader of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition, said while he understands the need for funding for veterans statewide, he believes it is not the time to derail the Holyoke project, which advocates have spent decades pursuing.

"The time to point fingers or place blame or say what about me, and where's mine — that ended in March of last year ... we need both branches of government to step up and do the right thing," Paradis said.

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