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Punt says veterans fighting futile battle for home

November 22, 1999

Vet homeBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - A decade-long attempt by a group of local veterans to convince the state to convert a former children's hospital building at the South Mountain Restoration Center into a long-term care home for veterans has become an exercise in futility, State Sen. Terry Punt said Monday.

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"I wish it could be done. There's a definite need for one, but it's not going to happen," said Punt, R-Waynesboro.

Some local veterans toured the stately 144,000-square-foot, three-story brick and steel building earlier this month with officials of the South Mountain Restoration Center, said Richard Boyer, a World War II veteran from South Mountain who has been leading the effort.

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Last week a dozen area veterans joined Boyer at the building, known as Unit 2, to discuss its fate. All are pushing to covert it into Pennsylvania's sixth veterans' home. The nearest two homes are more than two hours away in Scranton, Pa., and Hollidaysburg, Pa.

"We need one for this area," Boyer said.

Punt said he got an appropriation bill through the State Legislature to renovate the building into a veterans' home. The bill was signed by then Gov. Robert Casey, but Casey never released the money. The project died when Casey left office and was succeeded by Gov. Tom Ridge. Punt said he then turned his efforts to the Ridge administration.

In 1995 representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs toured the building with Punt and local veterans. They learned that the interior would have to be gutted to retrofit the building to meet federal regulations. Punt said he also learned at the time that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would not approve additional veterans homes. The two new ones already approved for Pennsylvania, one near Pittsburgh and one near Philadelphia, would be built, but none after that. "That wiped out the idea," Punt said.

In 1996 Punt told John Patton, director of veterans affairs for the state, that his district has a veteran population of more than 130,000. "I asked him what we could do," he said.

The idea for a short-term care facility for outpatient treatment and short hospital stays for temporary illnesses became a possible use for the building, Punt said. A feasibility study is needed to justify the money for it, but Patton's office lacks the personnel to do one. That's where things stand today, Punt said.

"A short-term care facility is still a possibility, but it's on the back burner," he said.

The local veterans, although discouraged, are not ready to give up.

Vern Pyles, a retired Navy commander, World War I veteran and member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1974-80, said the building would make a perfect veterans' home. It has semi-private and private rooms, a commercial kitchen, large dining room, nurses stations, administrative offices, two indoor swimming pools and a large auditorium. The grounds of the South Mountain Restoration Center would add to amenities for patients, he said.

Eugene Kauffman, 64, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, said he worked in the kitchen of Unit 2 when it was still a children's hospital in the early 1950s. At the time the campus was a tuberculosis sanitarium. It was built in the late 1930s and at one time housed 5,000 TB patients. It was renamed the South Mountain Restoration Center when it became a state mental hospital, which is still caring for some patients.

Other buildings on the 620-acre campus have been taken over Abraxas, a facility for troubled youth.

Unit 2 was shut down in the mid-1980s and has been empty ever since.

"It's an asset the state should put to good use, and the proper use is a veterans home," Pyles said.

"Our efforts are for those who need it now," Boyer said.

Robert Ringer of Waynesboro, Pa., a World War II veteran, said those who served in that conflict are dying off at the rate of 1,000 a day.

"All (state and federal officials) have to do is wait a few more years, then they won't need it," he said.

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