James Roberts' faith led him to where he is today, serving as home administrator of the Idaho State Veterans Home in Boise. But Roberts is a Quaker, a belief system that traditionally refuses to participate in war, yet he spends his days serving war heroes at the home and says he wouldn't have it any other way. Following 20 years of working in the private nursing-care industry, Roberts took over the state's largest veterans assisted-care residence in January 2006.
What is your annual operating budget?
Our facility is appropriated approximately $10.7 million in operating expenses.
And that includes a diminishing amount of state general funds.
General funds have been reduced across the veterans division from about 12 percent down to 4.2 percent. The home now really generates most of its own receipts. When I first got here, we were only billing Medicaid, but we have since become eligible to bill Medicare, which is a huge benefit for our veterans.
How many residents do you currently have?
We have a total of 167 beds and currently 150 of them are full.
Are those beds divided up based on specific needs?
We have 17 beds in our secure care facility for those folks with Alzheimer's or dementia. Those beds are filled all the time, and we have a waiting list. We also have something called our res-dom [residential domiciliary] facility for those folks admitted on a sliding scale based on their ability to pay. There are 36 beds there that are full all the time. The remaining beds are in a our general-care facility.
How engaged in current events are the residents?
More than you would realize. Some of our veterans had some very pronounced opinions on the recent raid to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. They're very aware of current events and are quite politically engaged. We have a WiFi system so the vets can have full Internet access. Some have laptops, but many can't afford them, so we have computer stations for them.
How much of an issue is smoking here?
It's interesting that you bring that up. We hear a lot about smoking cessation from the Veterans Administration. The VA offices just went all non-smoking inside and out. We feel our veterans here have earned the right to smoke. Cigarettes used to be distributed to soldiers in their mess kits. For us to say that, in their last years, they don't have a right to smoke is wrong.
How are you preparing this facility for the next 10 years and beyond?
The face of our constituents is about to change dramatically. We have a lot more women serving in the military now, so we really need to start thinking about how we are going to accommodate those ladies. We will certainly have many more issues related to post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. We're certainly going to be seeing a lot more veterans with prosthetic arms and legs. We're talking about the possibility of a new unit to help deal with mental or behavioral issues. There is definitely work to be done.
Memorial Day for most of us means a three-day weekend. It has to be quite different at the home.
Memorial Day here quite often includes some stoic sadness over the memory of friends that were lost in combat. We have residents who were on ships when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We have men here who were on Iwo Jima. We have a gentleman who was a pilot in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There were two gentlemen who were POWs in a German concentration camp, and they didn't even realize that they had been there together until they were reunited here at the home.
Can you speak to the experience of when a veteran dies here?
You're supposed to keep a professional distance, but it's really hard on the staff. I'm most concerned for our entry-level workers. They may be making nine bucks an hour. It takes them an hour of work just to buy 2 gallons of gas. If we don't take care of the caregivers, they're not going to be in the proper frame of mind that they need to be in those moments when we need them the most.
So, this has to be more than a way to simply make a living.
It's a passion. I can tell you that my faith led me here. I'm a Quaker. Now, I ask you, isn't that the most absurd thing that you ever heard? That a Quaker is running a veterans home?
How do you reconcile that?
All I know is that I'm here for a reason. It's a deep, personal encounter for me.