History comes to life in the halls of the Northwest Louisiana Veterans Home in Bossier City, where members of the Greatest Generation share battle stories with military men and women who served during peacetime.
“I was at the Battle of the Bulge, from start to finish,” says William Hines, who moved into the home permanently after breaking a hip nearly four years ago. He already knew the home inside and out because his son, Byron Hines, was the first administrator at the Northwest Louisiana Veterans Home.
The Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs opened the $15 million, 156-bed facility in 2007 to provide around-the-clock care for aging war veterans. The home includes a secure wing for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The home and four others like it around Louisiana have since opened the homes to peacetime veterans, veterans’ spouses and Gold Star parents who lost a child in combat.
Hines keeps some of his World War II photos and commendations in his room at the home. Historians and TV crews have interviewed him to get details about the war from the perspective of a Louisiana farm boy who lived through one of the pivotal battles of World War II.
“I had a feeling I wasn’t going to make it home,” he recalled. “I asked the Lord, ‘If You let me get home, I’ll serve You.’ I came through it without a scratch. I’ve tried my best to keep my part of the bargain.”
He had some close calls. Shrapnel from German artillery fire hit his helmet and knocked him to the ground during a fierce fight to recapture the town of Wingen and a nearby hill from the Germans. He watched the men around him fall under the gunfire and bombs. He estimated only 28 men from his company of 166 emerged unscathed from that fight.
Hines was drafted after he turned 18 in 1944 and arrived in France the day before the five-week-long Battle of the Bulge. American soldiers suffered as much from the bitter cold and snow as from the German bullets and bombs, he said.
“It was one of the coldest winters that Germany ever had,” he said. “The elements took more than the Germans did. Frozen feet were a real problem. I started rocking back and forth to keep my feet from freezing while I was over there. I did that for three months after I got home.”
He and the other men in the 70th Infantry Division marched and fought, sometimes in the woods and hills of France and sometimes from house to house in German towns. Hines took the lead as a scout for some of the troops’ advances.
“I led 600 men three miles through German lines,” he recalled.
He and the other soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat in some towns but were able to take others without bloodshed.
“Kutzenhausen, we took it at night, about one o’clock,” Hines said. “We did it without firing a shot.”
He was discharged in 1946 and returned to civilian life, working first at Railway Express in Alexandria and then driving a Holsom bread truck for 14 years. He became the administrator at Pilgrim Manor South nursing home in Bossier City in 1964 and ultimately operated several Bossier Parish nursing homes with a business partner. His son Byron followed in his footsteps, working at some of those nursing homes before becoming the first administrator at the Northwest Louisiana Veterans Home.
Hines said he likes the veterans home and praised the staff for their hard work.
“I get three meals a day and I don’t have to cook,” he said with a grin.
The veterans home provides everything ranging from around-the-clock care to daily social activities and a neighborhood-like environment that encourages residents to get to know each other, said administrator Wes Pepitone. Pepitone was named administrator about three years ago after working at other nursing homes in the area.
“We have our own pharmacy in-house,” he said. “We also have a veterans assistance counselor. He helps veterans get all the assistance they’re entitled to, not just here at the veterans home but in the community.”
The home also works closely with other agencies like Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport and the Veterans Resource Center in Bossier City to coordinate care and services for residents. Staff members keep in touch with veterans organizations and military-focused community groups to provide social opportunities for residents.
“Here, we say every day is Veterans Day,” Pepitone said. “We celebrate Veterans Week in November. We have honor medal ceremonies periodically. The Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs coordinates that, and we give honor medals to residents of Louisiana who served in the military.”
He said the residents connect with each other more than people at other long-term care centers because they have similar experiences as veterans.
Veterans are a huge part of the local economy. In 2018, more than 15,000 veterans and family members received benefits totaling $74 million in northwest Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. Around the state, more than 285,000 veterans and family members benefitted from $1.27 billion in compensation from the federal Veterans Administration.
“All this money is directly spent in the parishes,” said Alex Juan, communications director for the state Veterans Affairs Departments.
Kermit Horton is one of those folks. In 2014, he told his family he wanted to move into the veterans home when he was no longer able to live alone. He decided it was time for that transition after a long hospital stay earlier this year.
Horton, 89, suffers from myasthenia gravis, a chronic disease that affects a person’s muscles. He was weak and barely able to move when he got to the veterans home about three months ago.
“This is the best physical therapy I have ever seen,” Horton said. “I couldn’t even turn over in bed when I got here. Now I’m able to use a walker, and I think I’ll be able to do more. I’m in therapy from about 7 a.m. to noon. It’s hard work, but the therapists know how to talk to the veterans and encourage them.”
Horton is among peacetime veterans who live at the home. He hails from Virginia and Maryland. He joined the Air Force in 1947 after graduating from high school and served until 1951. He held clerical positions and made sure planes received regular maintenance, among his other responsibilities. He served as U.S. military forces adjusted to the Cold War and the realities of a world with nuclear weapons.
“I was at several bases in the United States and then in the Aleutian Islands,” he said. “The Japanese had just left the island I was on a year before.”
The Aleutians, a chain of islands off the coast of Alaska, are cold and wet. Horton has his own tales of surviving extreme weather.
“There’s no vegetation on the island I was on, just sand,” he recalled. “We would have to go up in the mountains and dig foxholes and eat C rations when we were training. It was so cold they said you could only live about 30 seconds if you fell in the ocean.”
Horton was eventually deployed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City. He married a Louisiana girl and decided to make Louisiana his home. After his discharge, he worked in the corporate world and later drove a medical transport van. The latter job gave him special insight into just what sets the Northwest Louisiana Veterans Home apart from other long-term care centers.
“I’ve been in and out of a lot of nursing homes,” Horton said. “I’m so glad I wound up here. The compassion of all the employees is amazing. They performed a miracle with me. I was not only sick, I was so depressed when I got here. They helped me with that.”
Horton pointed out an activities calendar taped to the wall of his room. Three full-time activities directors line up a range of events and outings for the residents each month. Churches and community groups put on programs at the home for residents who can’t leave.
“They always have something going on,” Horton said. “I really want to try the beanbag baseball. There are some other things I want to do, too. They go out to eat and things like that. I want to do that, too, when I’m able to.”
Each home has a veterans council that decides on everything from outings to improvements at the homes. When residents set their minds to something, they can make it happen, Juan said.
“We always say, ‘The veterans homes are a place where you go to live, not a place you go to die’,” Juan said. “For example, the residents at the Northeast Louisiana Veterans Home in Monroe wanted ducks, so now the community is helping them build a habitat for ducks and geese.”
Community support is crucial. People can do something as simple as donating books, DVDs and CDs. Juan encourages everyone to consider volunteering – or just visiting – the home in Bossier City.
“We want people in the community to get them to know the men and women who have sacrificed so much for their country. A lot of the veterans just want to chat with new people,” Juan said.
Pepitone said he enjoys seeing residents regain strength, make friends and embrace life in spite of the challenges of aging. He also loves to listen to veterans talk about their service.
“You see stories on TV, you read about it, but we get to hear from our veterans first-hand,” Pepitone said.