Army veteran Charlie Ross has plenty to be thankful for.
A resident of the Veterans Home of California-Barstow, Charlie is among the veterans living at a CalVet Home who shared their blessings with us as we prepare for Thanksgiving Day and dinner with all of the trimmings. Charlie’s story is one of giving and receiving, making it the perfect walkup to the holiday season.
Charlie returned stateside in 1969 after a two-year enlistment that included a tour of duty in Vietnam. He eventually found his bliss in a home in Mississippi that offered spectacular views of the Gulf Coast.
That vanished in an instant, in August 2005, when he fled Hurricane Katrina with his guitar and a few belongings in hand shortly before the 175-mph winds destroyed the home. Charlie came west to California and the Central Valley city of Tulare to stay temporarily with relatives.
During a visit to the local American Legion post, he shared his story with other veterans there, along with his need for a permanent place to live. They told Charlie about the Veterans Home of California-Barstow, and his luck began to change. He moved in later that year and along with his new life at the Home came new friends, including a veteran named Richard Epke. A few Saturdays ago, they went to a holiday toy drive in nearby Victorville, which promised free tee-shirts for all who donated $10 or an unwrapped toy. The event also included a raffle for a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Charlie bought a raffle ticket, and when the winning number was pulled, it was his. He can no longer ride a motorcycle. However, Richard can; so Charlie turned to him and said, “You can have the bike. “Richard said, ‘Thank you,’ and then sat there quiet for a really long time. I think he was in shock.”
Both men teared up when they told their story back at the Barstow Home.
“It was just natural to give it to him,” Charlie said.
Indeed, he is thankful for many things in his life. That includes surviving Vietnam and escaping Hurricane Katrina. And, it includes landing at the Barstow Home 16 years ago, where he became friends with Richard, who is the second-most thankful person in this story.
“My friend gave me a Harley-Davidson,” Richard said. “What more can I say?”
Barstow Home resident and Vietnam-era Army veteran Judy Richardson counts her blessings.
“As good of health as I have and a place to live,” Judy said, when asked what she is thankful for. “I lived in a trailer for a long time and it should have been condemned. I was pretty worried before I came here. We have more to be thankful for [than] what we don’t have, if we think about it.”
Lyle Hartman, who served in the Air Force from 1961 to 1964, is a resident at the Veterans Home of California-Ventura, which opened in 2010. After his wife died, he initially got on the waiting list to live at the Yountville Home.
Things changed when he went to Santa Clarita to visit his son, who’d seen the Ventura Home and suggested they give it a look. Lyle liked what he saw, and Ventura was able to take in new applicants.
“They transferred the paperwork, and bam! bang! boom! I was living in Ventura 30 days later,” said Lyle, who moved into the Home in October. “I’m thankful for being here. The staff is great and the individual care is outstanding.”
Meanwhile, at the Veterans Home 56 miles away in Chula Vista, Donald Bittner also is thankful. He’s grateful to have a sparkling-clean place to live, for the friends he’s made there, for the staff members who provide care for him, and all of the others at the 400-bed Home.
A Cold War-era Navy veteran, Donald expresses his appreciation in a simple but symbolic way: Beginning at 7:15 each morning, he spends an hour greeting employees as they arrive for the day. It might be “Good morning” or a “Have a nice day.” He might make a little joke or compliment them, and he knows most by name.
This Thanksgiving, Donald is thankful for the opportunity to bring a bit of joy to everyone who enters the building each morning.
“I’m glad I can go outside each morning and welcome the staff,” he said.
At 101 years old, World War II Navy veteran Sheldon Lewis is among the 23 members of CalVet’s unofficial Centenarian Club, which includes veterans or spouses 100 years or older living at any of the eight Veterans Homes of California throughout the state.
He’s also high on the seniority list at the Redding Home, where in March 2014 he became one of its first residents and has lived there ever since.
Sheldon shows his gratitude every day with his cheerful disposition toward the entire staff and other residents. His grandson, Russ Hodge, lives nearby and visits him almost every day.
“I’m just thankful for living to 100 and having my grandson here,” Lewis said. “And everyone that works here.”
Army veteran Joseph Berry and his Navy veteran mom, Carol, also live at the Home. They were able to see each other last Mother’s Day – face to face in the same room – for the first time since the pandemic, which caused limited visitations even among residents.
Said Joseph: “I’m thankful for a nice place to live and close to where my mom lives.”
Veterans are also employees at Veterans Homes of California, and Sam Tejada is among them.
Sam, a Marine veteran whose service included two deployments to Iraq, is the health and safety officer at the Veterans Home of California-Fresno.
He and his girlfriend spent several months trying to buy a home, putting down offers but losing out to other bidders. Finally, they found one and bought it. A veterans organization then surprised the couple by paying off their mortgage.
They will spend their first Thanksgiving in their new home.
Ed and Peggy Pestana are thankful for each other and to be together again. They live at the Veterans Home of California-Fresno. Last year Peggy needed to go into the Home’s skilled nursing unit temporarily.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she could not be with her husband of 71 years for several months. Nor could she see their three grown children, seven grandchildren, or three great-grandchildren because of COVID-19 health and safety precautions, which all Veterans Homes faced. An Air Force veteran who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars and during peacetime, Ed visited her daily standing at the window outside her room.
Their first date was at the Playland amusement park in San Francisco. “I took her through the Tunnel of Love, but I was good,” Ed recalls. “However, on the way home we stopped to catch a view of a beautiful full moon. Peggy looked out the passenger window, I leaned over to look out the same window. She turned her head to face me and I kissed her.”
The rest, as they say, is history. After so many years of being together, they finish each other sentences. Happily, Peggy completed her rehab and returned to the room she shares with Ed. They are grateful to the Fresno Home staff and the many friends they have made there.
“We do have a lot to be grateful for,” says Peggy. “I guess you can say we are lucky in love and in life.”
Happy Thanksgiving from everyone at CalVet!