By Malia Zimmerman – KAUNAKAKAI, MOLOKAI — It’s a dream within reach, one that really may come true for Hawaii’s military veterans.
Larry Helm, 70, a heavy combat Vietnam veteran who served with the 25th infantry based at Schofield Barracks from 1964 to 1966, has headed up the effort to build a center for veterans on the Hawaiian island of Molokai for the past decade.
Representing Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, a nonprofit founded in 2002, Helm advocated for the 345 veterans living on Molokai who’d fought in World War II, Vietnam, Korea or the Middle East. Many could not get their claims for medical services processed in a timely manner. Veterans were waiting more than six months to get an appointment for mental health services.
Helm said they needed a central place to get access to physical and mental health services and financial aid — a place they could also meet with fellow veterans for moral support. Helm said he was particularly concerned for those veterans returning from the Middle East to Molokai.
“I emphasize the importance of continuing and improving the mental and physical healthcare they deserve. All service connected claims must be efficiently and hastily processed sooner not later,” Helm told the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in 2006.
The veterans say they could build the center on Wharf Road on the edge of Kaunakakai, Molokai’s main town, in six months for $250,000. The community of 7,400 residents came together. The largest landowner, Molokai Ranch, donated the 17,000-square foot property just steps away from the island’s pier. Art Parr, a professional architect and Korean War combat veteran, designed the center.
However, during the past decade, government bureaucracy kept getting in the way of their progress.
Citing zoning issues and changes to the center’s plan, the Molokai Planning Commission took three years to grant a Special Management Area permit, which was required for the project to move forward.
After receiving the permit in 2009, the veterans applied for a building permit with County of Maui. Molokai is one of three Hawaiian Islands under Maui County jurisdiction.
A year later, still without a building permit, 15 veterans traveled from Molokai to Maui to demand action from the mayor, the council, and county fire department and water department officials. Over the years, two Maui mayors, the Maui County Council and the governor at the time promised to help the veterans, but did not come through.
Maui County officials continued to refused to issue the permit, saying the veterans group did not have a sufficient water pipe to ensure fire protection, and under new rules passed in 2008, must double the size of the water pipe to 8 inches and add a fire hydrant just in front of the center at a cost to them of $38,000.
Helm, a small business owner, noted several businesses nearby were using the smaller pipe, but the county would not budge, saying the new rules did not allow them to make an exception for one group.
Frustrated with the bureaucracy, Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the County of Maui in September 2010, claiming their constitutional due process and equal protection rights had been violated.
“This is about accountability. The government screwed up and delayed construction. The cost of everything — gas, lumber, shipping — has gone up since we started this project,” Helm said in 2010.
With all the delays, the cost of the project had more than doubled.
James Fosbinder, the veterans’ attorney, at the time called the situation “outrageous” and an extreme case of “government bureaucratic abuse.”
Thanks to a federal court ruling, veterans were granted the permit in 2011, but they paid thousands of dollars in court fees. As a part of the settlement, Maui County had to issue the permit, pay the veterans $200,000 and the mayor was required to issue an apology.
Helm said more than 50 island veterans living when the project was planned died before the center could be build.
Today, the veterans’ center is nearly complete.
But Helm is facing another challenge, this one for his own life as he battles liver cancer.
His children have stepped in to raise $100,000 in private donations to complete the center. On June 4, they held a fundraiser that brought in $25,000.
The center still needs commercial kitchen appliances, a sewer system and a parking lot, according to Helm’s daughter Nichol Helm Kahale.
The Helm family and many friends have rallied to get the center completed so Helm can see the veterans’ dream become a reality.
Kahale said her father believed in the importance of speaking out and standing up for the little guy, something he did throughout his life and during the past 10 years on behalf of the veterans. But she said his “true calling” came in the mid 90s to help with care and providing services to the many Molokai veterans.
“He is the ‘commander’ for the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans organization and has led it to what it is today. He also worked endlessly and unselfishly towards building the first Veterans Center on Molokai. He took on the arduous task of dealing with the County and the red tape that goes along with it. We hope he will soon see his work come to fruition,” Kahale said.
To contribute to the Molokai Veterans Center, please write to Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans (on behalf of Larry Helm), co/ Alice Kono, PO Box 1633, Kaunakakai, Hawaii, 96748