WASHINGTON—Sixty years ago, Ronald Bennett was stationed near Washington, D.C., in Quantico, Va. Every free weekend, he made the hour drive north and spent time in the nation’s capital.
“In the 50s this town was a different town,” said Bennett, 78. “It was a laid back, slow, southern town.”
Bennett, who served for 24 years in the Marines and then the Air Force, now lives at what many call “the best kept secret in D.C.,” or the “best kept secret in the armed forces.”
Located a little northwest of Capitol Hill, the Armed Forces Retirement Home provides veterans with independent living, 272 acres of natural surroundings, and commodities including meals, movies, bowling, and golf.
“I couldn’t believe this was right under my nose,” said Billy White, a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran. “If someone had told me there was something this good in New Zealand, I’d have believed them, but not in our nation’s capital.”
Built in 1851 as an “asylum for old and disabled veterans,” some buildings have served as summer homes for four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Chester Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Buchanan. The 437 veterans are free to roam the tranquil grounds by foot, motorized scooters, or bikes. They can visit the tall, white-marble Sherman building with its clock tower and picturesque view, peek in Lincoln's Cottage, or look out the library windows and see the Washington Monument in the distance.
“This is the only place where you can eat breakfast and lunch and read the newspaper and view the capitol,” said Sheila Abarr, the home's acting administrator. “They always know they can come back here and have a peaceful night in a gated community.”
The campus isn’t off-limits to non-veterans every day: Friends of the Soldier’s Home, a group of volunteers living in the surrounding area, organizes events, including a Fourth of July Celebration.
Friends of the Soldier’s Home was born out of conflict in 2011: John Hughes, who lives a 15 minute walk away from the home, actively opposed a master plan that would add 77 acres to the home’s campus. During those discussions, Hughes realized the home and the community had no relationship, so he co-founded Friends of the Soldier’s Home.
“When the lands fight was over, everything got real quiet, and everybody went on their merry way,” Hughes said. “I said to myself it would be a total waste if we had all this for nothing.”
Group volunteers visit the home and host events like “Saloon Night” and Jingo. During Saloon Night, veterans come into a clean, modern room with throw-back touches. Pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Betty Boop grace the walls and a volunteer plays Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs as veterans tap their hands on their knees. As Hughes hands out plates of chicken wings and pizza slices, he notes that the organization—dubbed “the Friends” by veterans—provides free beer on Saloon Nights. Later, veterans raise their Yuengling bottles (the oldest brewery in America, one man points out) and sing along to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Some veterans don’t have close family. Others don’t want to be a burden. White, the Vietnam veteran, has 12 siblings and stayed with a cousin for only a month, saying he didn’t want “to be in anybody’s way.” He’s found his niche as the campus disc jockey, earning him the name “Music Man.”
Most residents at the Armed Forces Retirement Home are in good health and some like to travel. Navy veteran John Russo, 77, told me he had just come back from a 21-day cruise with his “gal.” Russo said the independence he feels is his favorite part about the home: “It’s like having a military establishment of our own.”
When Bennett came back to D.C. and moved into the home, he only recognized three places in the city: “They were churches.” He goes out occasionally but spends a lot of time in the ceramics shop on campus, where he makes mugs and teapots. With or without Hurricane Arthur, Bennett plans to celebrate Independence Day: “A little bit of rain never melted us before, surely won’t do it on the Fourth.”
The Friends Fourth of July Celebration will feature, among other activities, catch and release fishing, a marching band, and watching fireworks over the mall from the peaceful grounds of the home. Hughes says people from the community often go up and thank the veterans for their service and for letting them come into their private home.
“At the end of the day, we need to give them their privacy,” Hughes said. “They served their country, and now they need some space to relax and enjoy their later years.”