The U.S. Marines came to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home bearing gifts Wednesday that will allow every single veteran the ability to communicate with friends and family any time they want.
Just after the 104th Fighter Wing from Barnes Air National Guard Base flew a formation of fighter jets over the home in the unit’s effort to honor veterans and to pay tribute to frontline healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus across the region, Brighton Marine members dropped off 175 iPads to be used by residents.
The donation will supplement a previous donation of 20 iPads given to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home by the Military Family Relief Fund.
“As I started to read the stories and hear the stories, particularly in Holyoke where vets are dying alone, it really hit me and I asked what can I do to make it better,” said Tom Lyons, a member of the board of directors for the Brighton Marines and the chairman of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees.
The non-profit organization, which has operated for 37 years to assist service members, retirees and veterans with many services including health management and housing, initially agreed to donate 25 iPads to the nearby Chelsea Home to help veterans there who had not been able to see any family members or friends since the home was closed to visitors in mid-March.
The feedback they received was positive. Veterans and family members said the iPads helped them reach relatives much easier, he said.
Meanwhile members of Brighton Marine continued to hear that the virus had spread through the Holyoke Soldiers Home, leaving 70 percent of the veterans infected with the virus and killing 71 of the about 210 veterans who were living there when the first resident tested positive on March 21.
The crisis was so severe in Holyoke that officials for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services placed Superintendent Bennett Walsh on paid administrative leave and tapped Val Liptak, a registered nurse and CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital to take over his duties. Officials also set up a clinical command team of professionals and called in 160 National Guard members to augment the depleted staff, many of whom were infected with COVID-19.
What was crushing was the many stories, the group was hearing about the difficulty families were having contacting their relatives. Many nurses were using their own phones or other electronic devices to help veterans they cared for talk to wives, sons and daughters and grandchildren, he said.
Lyons went back to members of Brighton Marines and proposed they purchase 350 more iPads from their relief fund. On Monday they donated half to residents at Chelsea, Lyons said.
While the Chelsea Soldiers Home has not been hit as hard with the coronavirus, currently 28 have died and 29 others have been infected with COVID-19, the remaining 188 veterans have not seen friends or family in nearly two months.
At the same time, he contacted a long-term friend Richard Girard who he met through veterans events, and said the organization wanted to donate the remaining iPads to the residents at Holyoke. Girard, a new member of the Holyoke Board of Trustees, responded quickly to say they were needed and would be used, Lyons said.
“By providing these iPads, veterans can now stay in contact remotely with those who care and worry about them. Our veterans deserve the best that we can provide for them, and this effort by Brighton Marine will make a very tough situation a little easier for them and for their families,” Lyons said.
Although the cost of the iPads was sizable, Lyons said all the members of Brighton Marine supported the plan to spend the money to help the veterans who are the most vulnerable to falling seriously ill from COVID-19.
“As part of our mission at Brighton Marine, we connect veterans to a variety of resources to meet their needs. We saw a very real need for veterans in isolation to be able to connect with loved ones during this pandemic, and are taking action to help solve that problem,” said Michael Dwyer, president at Brighton Marine. “The social distancing resulting from COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of staying connected. Our goal is to re-establish a connection between our Veterans and their loved ones.”
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