Tennessee is in the planning stages for additional state veterans homes in Montgomery and Bradley counties, the state commissioner of Veterans Affairs told the state VFW’s 82nd convention Friday in Nashville.
State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder also lauded conditions at the state’s current veterans homes, and said the state is prepared to open its fourth veterans cemetery in Knoxville in July.
The state has veterans homes in Knoxville, Murfreesboro and Humboldt, and all have received deficiency-free inspections, the commissioner said, adding that it puts them in the 99th percentile of all nursing homes in the state.
“When you walk through those doors, it doesn’t smell like a nursing home,” Grinder said. “That’s a big thing to me.”
The Murfreesboro home recently received a five-star rating from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the highest rating any nursing home can receive.
Ed Harries, executive director of the state’s veterans homes, noted in a recent statement that less than 15 percent of more than 300 nursing facilities in the state are given five-star ratings. The rating includes health inspections, staffing and quality. The Murfreesboro home opened in 1991, the Knoxville home in 2006 and the home in Humboldt 1996. Each has 140 beds.
“Not long ago, the quality in our veterans homes was substandard — shameful, shameful,” Grinder said Friday. “They deserve nothing but the best.”
The state’s homes provide plenty of activity for residents, she said, listing residents’ visits to locations like Graceland, the Jack Daniel’s distillery and an air show.
“It’s not a place just to lay their heads at night. We really try hard to make it a home environment,” she said.
The planned homes in Montgomery and Bradley counties already have funding lined up from federal, state, county, city and donated dollars. The Montgomery County site will be the next to be ready, with Bradley County to follow, and funds are being sought for a home in Memphis.
Not everything about the department is good news, however, according to Grinder. She said she recently met with the head of gold-star mothers in Memphis.
“It was heartbreaking for me to know she had difficulty getting to the grave of her son because of the mud,” Grinder said. “It was heartbreaking for me to see sunken graves because of drainage and erosion. It’s a swamp over there. I’ve asked the U.S. VA what it can do to help us.”
She said the national VA is sending someone to look at the sites in Knoxville, Nashville, Jackson and Memphis and the potential for building more veterans cemeteries in the state. One projected new site for a cemetery is in Madison County.
“Tennessee is a long state. If you are a family member, if you want to go visit your loved one, whether it is in a veterans home or a cemetery, I think we need to be able to have something that makes it a lot easier for families to do so,” Grinder said.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the smallest departments in state government with less than 100 staffers. Grinder has re-organized the department and has named geographical commissioners for each of the state’s three grand divisions. Don Smith serves as assistant commissioner in East Tennessee, Wendell Cheek in Middle Tennessee and Mark Breece in West Tennessee.
Grinder said so far this fiscal year, the department has secured more than $800 million in federal funds for Tennessee’s veterans, their families and survivors. But she pointed to the economic stress on many families.
“There are a lot of economic difficulties right now. A lot of our veterans are really suffering physically and emotionally because of their service to their country, and we cannot afford to fail them.
“What keeps me up at night is I know we still have veterans that don’t know what they may be entitled to. I know we have veterans that are still suffering because they have not received medical care. I know we have widows that are living in poverty that may not know they may be eligible for pensions. And it is our duty to make sure we get this word out.”
Gov. Bill Haslam addressed the convention as well. He said he takes his responsibility as commander in chief of the Tennessee National Guard very seriously.
“We worked hard to protect the things in the Veterans Affairs budget,” Haslam said after the meeting. “We have some significant adds in terms of the new cemetery in Knoxville, and we have some money in there for a new veterans home in Clarksville, which has been long delayed.
“Once we get that done, that kind of frees up the funds where we can do another veterans home in Bradley County. Both of those have been hung up in the process a long time.”
Haslam told the convention audience that the first burial in Knoxville will be a re-burial of a member of the family who provided the property for the Knoxville site, which overlooks the river.
Grinder’s first name began as a nickname, but she legally changed it to make it official. She is a former director of logistics for the Tennessee Army National Guard in Nashville.