LEBANON — When a resident of the Edward C. Allworth Veterans Home dies, as many as 70 people line the hallway as he or she leaves the building for the last time in what is known as a “walking out” ceremony.
That is the type of “family first” mentality Denise Rohan, the first female National Commander of the two-million member American Legion, said Thursday afternoon during a visit to the facility that is home to 154 veterans and their spouses.
“In the military, soldiers are paired with ‘Battle Buddies’,” she said. “They take care of one another at all times. But when those soldiers leave the military, they are on their own. They don’t have a Battle Buddy to count on. I think their fellow veterans, members of the American Legion, should take on that role.”
Rohan, who lives in Verona, Wisconsin, and was named national commander in August, said she hopes that before her one-year term of office is over, many American Legion members will embrace her “family first” challenge.
“Right now, our Vietnam veterans have retired or are retiring,” she said. “I hope they will step up and become Battle Buddies for our young men and women as they come home from their tours of duty.”
"Family first" includes monitoring and supporting America’s veterans’ hospitals.
“There are problems, but I believe most staff members love and care about our veterans,” Rohan said. “Accountability has been an issue. Many veterans are afraid to go to a veterans’ hospital, and it is becoming difficult to hire staff for them. The issue snowballs and contributes to our veterans’ suicide problem.”
"Family first" means inviting the general community to American Legion activities, Rohan said, and reminding people about the many programs they may have benefited from, such as Boys and Girls State.
Rohan is an Iowa native who joined the Army in 1974 fresh out of high school, somewhat by accident.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “My two older sisters were in college and I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. A friend talked myself and another friend into going with her for a physical for the military. She failed and we passed.”
For Rohan, it was a fortunate mistake.
“The military creates a sense of community, purpose and service to others,” Rohan said. “My dad was a volunteer firefighter. My parents were volunteer EMTs and active at church. Serving was how we were raised.”
Rohan served two years as a quartermaster and quartermaster instructor at Ft. Lee, Virginia. It’s where she met her future husband, Mike, a Kentucky native who made the Army and National Guard a 28-year career.
The couple then settled in Wisconsin, where Rohan spent 29 years with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She retired in 2012, and became the first female state American Legion commander.
But her first encounter with the American Legion set her jaw. A recruiter came to the couple’s home to invite her husband to sign up. When Rohan told the recruiter she was a veteran as well, he suggested she join the American Legion Auxiliary.
She declined the offer.
Two years later, she joined a post in another community.
“But when I visit the original Legion post, my photo is there and there is a sign that reads, ‘Remember, women are veterans, too. She could have been a member of our post,’” she said with a smile.
Veterans home administrator Kelly Odegaard and program director Jeremy Woodall told Rohan and local and state officers that the veterans home has a capacity of 154 residents, including veterans and their spouses. There are 11 houses with 14 residents each.
About 80 percent of the residents are men. More than 40 served during the Korean War and more than 30 served in WWII. There are four women and 24 spouses.
Odegaard said it is not a nursing home, retirement community or homeless shelter.
“We are a skilled nursing facility,” Odegaard said. “Everyone here has to have served or be a spouse of a veteran and they must meet medical needs criteria.”
The average length of stay at the home is three-and-a-half months, Odegaard said, although some residents have lived there since it opened.
When a room comes open, it is refreshed to “look just like the first day we opened,” Odegaard said.
The facility is unlike other veterans homes because it is based on the small home model. Every resident has his or her own room and bathroom, even if their spouse is with them.
Specially trained Certified Nursing Assistants take care of the residents, including cleaning their room, doing laundry, assisting with hygiene and even cooking them a bacon cheeseburger sandwich in the middle of the night.
Odegaard said the community of Lebanon and all of Linn County has been extremely supportive of the home and its residents from day one.
“We have a great relationship. They treat us like rock stars,” Odegaard. “Our payroll is about $7- to $8-million per year, and that’s all local.”
Rohan toured the three-year-old facility and stopped numerous times to shake hands and talk with residents. At the end of her tour, a half-dozen residents in wheelchairs lined up to shake her hand and she made each one feel important — like a family.
“World War II and Korea veterans often take a minute to watch me and decide if I was selected because I am a woman or because I worked my way up,” she said. “Then, they want to tell me about their daughters or granddaughters who are serving. They are so proud of them.”
Rohan visited American Legion posts in Brownsville, Canby, Lebanon and Albany and was to meet with Gov. Kate Brown on Friday.
A banquet in Rohan's honor will be held Saturday at the Lebanon Legion Post 51. Sunday, Rohan and her husband, her official aide, will travel to Puerto Rico.