TALIHINA, Oklahoma — The Veterans home sits on a 600-acre lot, nestled atop a hill overlooking the Kiamichi River Valley in southeast Oklahoma. A canopy of native oaks and pines shade the ground’s trimmed laws from the blasting summer sun. Complete with the main hospital, an auditorium, a fishing pond and other amenities, the Talihina Veterans Center is a haven for aging service members who sought respite in a lush and serene place.
But the state’s decision to close the center with the aim of mitigating monthly half a million dollar losses, and the siphoning of funds from other veterans services provided to help cover it, means the veterans living in Talihina need to leave a place many thought would be the last stop in their life journeys of service and sacrifice.
The original plan was to time the closure with the opening of a veteran’s home in Sallisaw, just 90 minutes north, and move the veterans there. Costly construction mistakes have delayed the new facility’s completion to late next year or early 2025.
The veterans must decide where they’d rather go instead. They could choose to move to any of the six other veterans homes across the state, to a private nursing home nearby or with a caretaker, if they have one.
Staying in the place they consider home is not among the options.
“We can choose where we want to go, but that’s it. It feels like we are being forced to leave,” said Danny Fitzwilliam, a 59-year-old Army veteran.
Fitzwilliam served as a military police officer in the 1980s before transferring his experience to a 30-year career with the Oklahoma City Police Department. He lived at the Talihina Veterans Center for five months, and chose it because he became enamored with the Ouachita Mountains, which loom over the center and stretch far enough east to disappear into Arkansas.
Had he known the center was going to close less than a year after he checked in, Fitzwilliam said he never would have gone there.
“Management called us into a meeting to let us know they are closing and that we have to leave. Nobody liked it,” said Fitzwilliam. “Some of the guys have been here for many years. I feel really sorry for them.”
Jimmie Billings, 84, served for 20 years as a Navy electronics technician and has lived at the center for two. After having served multiple tours during the Vietnam War, the native of nearby LeFlore County wanted to retire close to home. Billings said he’s thinking about moving to the home in Sulphur, but that he plans on staying put until the last day he can.
Fitzwilliam and Billings are among 36 veterans who were living in the center in June, when the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs announced its closure by Oct. 1. As of Aug. 10, only 14 veterans remained living in the center with a capacity for 175.
The announcement prompted southeastern Oklahoma legislators Rep. Jim Grego and Sen. Warren Hamilton to issue press releases questioning the decision by the Oklahoma Veterans Commission. Grego toured the center and Hamilton had a behind-the-scenes conversation with Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, Secretary of State Brian Bingman and Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs John Nash, which caused the closing plans to pause, said Greg Slavonic, who has served as the veteran affairs department interim director for five months.
But a pause never truly occurred. The department continued working to move the veterans and reduce contractual nursing staff in an effort to close the home as soon as possible, said Slavonic, who himself is a career veteran and businessman, having served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and a senior leader at the Computer Sciences Corporation.
He said the half a million in monthly losses are attributed to overhead expenses to maintain the nearly 100-year-old building, labor costs and employee benefits and a lack of federal dollars received as per diems for each veteran who lives there. The cost of living at a state-run veteran’s center is split between the federal government, the state and the veterans themselves, depending on the percentage of their disability.
“This landed in my lap to resolve,” Slavonic said. “Looking at everything, this is a blend of taking care of our veterans and trying to make the right business decision that’s best for the state of Oklahoma. So, I went to the Veterans Commission and asked them to do it.”
The alternative, he said, was to continue losing money in Talihina and being forced to ask the legislature for more taxpayer dollars to cover those losses and the cost of construction delays in Sallisaw.
The home in Sallisaw was originally priced at $77 million, but the Veterans Commission asked lawmakers for an additional $21.7 million this year to complete the building. So far, $10.8 million have been granted by legislators to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, while another equal amount is expected to be voted on during the 2024 legislative session.
‘It’s Like Going on Deployment’
The veterans forced to leave Talihina have first dibs on private rooms at the new home in Sallisaw when it opens, Slavonic said, even if they move to another home in the interim. While veterans are being transported from Talihina to centers across the state, those who choose not to relocate now can stay until Oct. 31, the latest closing date determined by the department, he said.
“I know there are three veterans down there that want to stay until the last day, and that’s fine,” Slavonic said. “They can stay, but at some point, they need to determine where they’re going to go.”
Billings is one of them. Sitting in a reclining chair in his room, surrounded by the essentials — his phone, his wheelchair, a notebook, tissues and a TV remote — he said leaving the place he calls home, just to be moved again when the Sallisaw location becomes an option, is like being in the military all over again.
His wife Mary passed away 13 years ago and his three children are grown and working in LeFlore County, unable to take him in. As far as he is concerned, Billings is at the whim of the state.
“When they tell me I’m gone, well, I’m gone. I would say from what it looks like, it won’t be much longer,” Billings said. “It’s like going on deployment for a year or so, waiting to go home. Right now this is home, and I guess Sallisaw would be my new home, but I am kind of in limbo between the two.”
He said one of the primary reasons he’s come to love living at the Talihina Veterans Center is the relationships he’s built with nurses and other staff tasked with taking care of him.
“Half of the staff you know, or you know their families,” Billings said.
In the days following the announcement of the closure, the veterans living at the home had their belongings packed into boxes and were made to share rooms on the first floor, as wings on the second and third floors were closed, said Sarah Breshears, the center’s administrator. The set-up, for some, was reminiscent of living in barracks and common rooms when they first enlisted.
As more veterans started choosing other centers to move to and their numbers dwindled, they were once again afforded privacy in their own rooms, Breshears said.
During a tour of the main hospital and living quarters led by Breshears, veterans were spread out along the first floor keeping to themselves. While most were napping in their rooms, one was smoking in the courtyard, one was sitting in the physical therapy and fitness room in his wheelchair watching TV. Another gave Breshears a hug and kiss on the side of the head, having just finished spending more than an hour shining his leather boots. A Vietnam War Veteran hat sat high on his head.
The staff, made up primarily of state employed and contracting nurses, were eating lunch, cleaning, running errands within the center or huddled in small groups talking. They appeared to be waiting. Waiting for something to do or happen, and waiting for the day when they too would be scattered to find new jobs.
Concerns About Quality of Care
Though Billings and Fitzwilliam said the care they’ve received at the Talihina Veterans Center has been adequate and friendly, locals and former staff members expressed worry about how the closing operations, specifically the reduction of force, would leave affect veterans’ physical and mental health. Some worry they will be left waiting to be fed, for wheelchair assistance, changes of clothing and showers.
A review of the veteran’s affairs department and the Talihina home by the state auditor’s office in 2017, when plans to close the center began taking shape, found a toxic work environment throughout the state agency, wrought with vindictive terminations of staff and inadequate care for veterans in multiple homes, in some cases leading to the deaths of residents and the resignation of medical professionals. Slavonic said he became aware of the audit when he assumed his position and noticed the issues stated in the audit were ignored.
“The discrepancies listed in that report were not addressed and were not resolved,” Slavonic said, “There was no report given back to the state auditor on those discrepancies. One of the first things I wanted to do was conduct a climate survey of all the employees and request as honest feedback as I could get from them.”
“I found there was not a healthy work environment here at ODVA. There was harassment and bullying and so many employees had not had pay raises for seven to 10 years. Individuals feared for their jobs,” he said.
There was no evidence of mistreatment or inadequate care of the veterans during an Oklahoma Watch tour of the center, and the two men who agreed to be interviewed made no indication that the quality of their care had fallen short. Veteran’s centers across Oklahoma, however, have a history of neglectful treatment of their residents, and it remains unclear the degree to which the situation at the center was sanitized before my arrival.
In 2011, an employee at the Norman center was charged with rape and oral sodomy against patients with advanced dementia. In 2012, a veteran was left to boil in a whirlpool bath at the home in Claremore, which caused his skin to flake off of his body – he died 10 hours later. In 2017, a veteran in Talihina was left bedridden for two months and became infested with maggots and developed bed sores, eventually dying of sepsis. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, relatives of veterans at the Lawton home discovered family members were having their hygiene neglected and were being left in their wheelchairs for more than 24 hours at a time. Except for the one in Talihina, all the centers mentioned have already seen veterans move there in the past month.
The investigations by local news outlets and the veteran’s affairs department have repeatedly attributed lapses in care to poor staffing levels, lack of proper training for nurses and inadequate leadership.
Breshears, the Talihina center’s administrator, dismissed the idea that the veterans are not being cared for properly because the number of nurses has been reduced. She confirmed that nurses on contract with the state are being let go as they are no longer needed, but that the standard of care for the veterans remains.
She said contractual nurses are being let go for two reasons: because the number of veterans at the center no longer justifies their need, and the veterans affairs department is trying to save money by staffing fewer contract nurses, who get paid nearly double that of state employees.
“It’s just not good business sense to have 23 contract staff, in addition to 80 state staff, when you only have 14 residents,” Breshears said. “Staff is usually reduced in direct proportion to the number of residents, so we’re actually overstaffed at this point.”
By Aug. 10, there were 66 state employees at the center, with more than 30 having accepted severance packages or transferred to another state veteran’s center, Slavonic said.
‘The Greater Good’
Both Slavonic and Breshears said closing the Talihina Veteran’s Center is in the best interest of Oklahoma’s veterans and residents. Slavonic said he tried to think of the situation from all angles, considering what is best for Oklahoma’s veterans but focusing on doing right by the state’s taxpayers.
“From the standpoint of being good stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars, that’s why I made the decision to move forward with the commission’s recommendation to close the facility earlier than next November or December, when we hope the Sallisaw home will be complete” he said. “Operating at a loss of half a million a month, that number would’ve been somewhere around $9.5 million by then.”
When the Talihina Center comes up short each month, in large part because of the low occupancy meaning fewer federal dollars, the department is forced to pull money from other centers and services provided to veterans across the state, Breshears said.
“It doesn’t just affect our veterans, it affects every veteran. If we’re losing half a million a month, then we’re taking from veterans,” she said. “It is a sad situation for the veterans here, but we need to look at the greater good too. We can provide equal or better care at other facilities.”
Billings, the career Navy veteran, said he feels like his and his fellow veterans’ best interests have been set aside for the sake of a dollar amount.
“The whole operation was not well planned out by the people who make the decisions in Oklahoma City. They’re just looking at money, I guess,” he said. “Now they’re farming people out to other places, and they’re going to wind up having to move them back to this area again.”
If it were up to him, Billings said, the state Department of Veterans Affairs would find a way to keep the Talihina home open until everyone can move to Sallisaw together.
“All my family and friends are from this area,” he said. “I am perfectly happy right here.”
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.