Old Soldiers’ Home losing ground in hopes of a more secure future

Nestled in the heart of Washington, D.C., is the 280-acre campus that serves as the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH), also known as the Old Soldiers’ Home. It has served retired veterans since a decade before the Civil War began.

The original administration building at the Armed Forces Retirement Home

It’s also located in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country.

With its primary source of revenue — the five branches of the armed forces — shrinking and health care costs consistently rising, the home wants to redevelop close to 80 acres on site. The redevelopment would cost the campus about a third of its size, but would yield steady revenue for the future.

According to a 2008 master plan, the home will maintain ownership of the property, with lease and development deals as an ongoing source of revenue.

The proposed development dwarfs what exists at the home currently, in terms of enclosed square footage. The plan calls for up to 4.7 million square feet of mixed-use development — residential, office space, medical, retail and even a hotel are all permitted uses.

“The idea is to utilize the structures that are not being used right now,” said Shaun Servais, administrator of the AFRH. “And, it has to fit in with the property.”

The pitchmen

Although the home itself is gated and not open to the public, it does have visitors, from prospective residents to media and government officials. Most visitors get to meet two residents who are the go-to guys when the home needs a public face.

One is U.S. Marine Corp. Gunnery Sgt. (Ret.) John E. Smith, a 10-year resident of the home. A Kansas native and later New Hampshire resident, Smith started his career in the Marines at 17, when he dropped out of school and lied about his age to enlist at the end of the Korean War.

On a recent visit, Smith, a bagpiper and proud Scots-Irishman, was still wearing the emerald-green armband he had received from a St. Patrick’s Day celebration a few days earlier. Smith, a former Parris Island drill instructor, has replaced his swagger stick (his metal-tipped instructor’s baton, now housed in the home’s Hall of Honor) with something a little more unique.

Instead of a standard-issue cane, Smith brandishes a thick piece of striped maple, slightly turned at the top to provide a handle. Along the front of the cane, bolted to the wood, are more than a dozen flattened pennies from various countries and badges from hunting supply retailer Cabela.

“This came from a tree in front of my deer stand,” Smith said. “I’d had my eye on it for a while, and when I needed a cane, I just picked it up and got it ready.”

Smith’s counterpart at the home is U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. (Ret.) Franklin Lawrence.

Lawrence wore an ironed, light-gray button-down shirt tucked sharply into a pair of blue trousers. As a representative of the home and its enthusiastic pitch man, Lawrence said it’s important to dress appropriately.

“I wasn’t going to wear jeans,” he said, “not with people coming.”

“I got to know gunny [Smith] here, and we’ve been doing public relations ever since,” Lawrence said. “Especially if I know we have any Marines coming through.”

From the master plan, zone A is the area that will be redeveloped.

A Massachusetts native, Lawrence started his military career at 15, when he lied about his age to join the State Guard during World War II. Later, during the Korean War, he enlisted properly in the U.S. Air Force and spent his career in various jobs and locations, including managing on-base retail shops and working with parachute rigging and repair of fabric that covered some of the planes of that era.

Lawrence has been at the home for 11 years. He thought about moving in earlier with his late wife, Rose, a retired U.S. Army nurse. But Rose, 15 years younger, wasn’t old enough to be admitted. After she died, Lawrence said he sold their home and spent three years living in the couple’s recreational vehicle at an RV Park.

“I didn’t need all that room,” he said. “And, it was a blast.”

Although the dimensions of the campus are likely to change in the near future, the residents and administration work tirelessly to promote the home and try and attract new members. Lawrence, calling on his extensive sales background, has been a bullish promoter for prospective residents.

“I’m a salesman for the home,” Lawrence said. “And, I believe in what I’m talking about.”

There are 454 veterans living at the AFRH. They have served in the armed forces in peacetime and in war. They come from all branches of the military: the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy. In the past few years, U.S. Coast Guard veterans became eligible to live at the home.

According to Gregory Moore, AFRH public affairs specialist, the average resident’s age is 82. As the number of World War II veterans continues to decline, most of the current residents had their active duty during the Korean War. About 90 percent of residents are men and about 10 percent women.

“That is rare for a retirement home,” Moore said. “But, it is reflective of the armed forces at the time of the average age of the residents.”

Historic newspapers in the Hall of Honors

The home has two sources of primary funding. All military service members pay a $1 monthly fee (raised this year from 50 cents, which had been the fee since the Korean War) that generates about $22 million annually.

The home also receives funds from the payment of fines and forfeitures levied against service members for legal issues. This brings in about $30 million a year, but has declined as the size of the armed forces continues to shrink.

Residents of the home’s independent living area pay 40 percent of their monthly income to live there. This is capped at $1,425 a month, increasing if residents need more intense care. All the veterans have access to a nine-hole golf course, bowling alley, fitness centers, onsite library, mess hall and healthcare, services including hospice and assisted living care.

“That’s not too bad for what, like $120, if you’re paying 50-cents a month over a 20-year career,” said Smith.

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