BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KAUNAKAKAI, MOLOKAI – Veterans from the Vietnam, Korean, World War II and Iraq wars gathered briefly on Christmas Eve to cherish a gift they have worked for years to give to the island veteran community – the Molokai Veterans Center.
Located on Wharf Road just outside the island’s main 2-block long town of Kaunakakai, the 3,000 square foot building with three offices, a pavilion, a commercial kitchen and full bathroom and shower facilities, won’t be completed in time for Christmas.
But the island’s veterans, who are sharing a shabby 300 square foot office in a run down building on the edge of Kaunakakai, are relieved the project will be built by Spring.
Launched 6 years ago, the center could have been finished in 6 months for $250,000, but government bureaucracy got in the way.
Maui Fire officials deemed the current waterline adequate for fire protection, but Maui Department of Water Supply officials disagreed ordering the veterans to construct a 463-foot extension to an existing 8-inch waterline for an additional $38,000.
The dispute continued, years dragged on, and some of the key veterans who helped launch the project and secure $250,000 from the state legislature to build it, died before the center could be started.
Larry Helm, a Vietnam veteran who served with the 25th infantry based at Schofield Barracks on Oahu, said some of the island’s senior veterans wanted to create a gathering place to share stories, support one another and receive medical and counseling services.
Mac Poepoe, who returned from Vietnam combat in 1970, said he got involved with the project because the center is important for younger veterans returning from war who need on island counseling and medical services.
Helm agrees, saying when he came back from the Vietnam War in 1966, veterans were not treated well and could not get the counseling and medical services they desperately needed. He wants younger veterans to have what he and other veterans fought for years to get.
“It is important to welcome our veterans home and give them the support and services they need,” Helm said. “No matter what your politics or what you believe about these wars, we have to support the troops.”
The island community of just over 7,000 residents came together to support the project. The largest landowner, Molokai Ranch, donated the 17,000-square foot property just steps away from the island’s only wharf. Art Parr, a professional architect and Korean War combat veteran, donated his talents by designing the center.
But the county government held up any progress the group made, refusing to allow the project to go forward.
After dealing with nearly five years of red tape, the veterans filed a federal lawsuit in September 2010.
Another year passed, and finally the county agreed to settle the lawsuit and let the project to go forward. The county has made an offer that Helm could not disclose, but he said if accepted, it should be enough money to complete the project, Helm said.
“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 six years ago,” Helm said. He confirmed the project will cost at least $500,000.
The veterans who came together on Christmas Eve include Tiana Merino, an Iraqi War Veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and
Operation Enduring Freedom; Patty Evans, a WWII pilot; Alice Kono, a WWII interpreter, Sylvia Pablan and Art Parr, Korean War veterans; Wendell Defratis, Kaipo Ramos, Robert Habong, Jessie Dudiot, Raymond Sanbueno, Larry Helm and Mac Poepoe from the Vietnam War era; and Dr. David Hafermann, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who also works as a medical doctor for the island’s 600 veterans.
After suffering through the horrors of war, the veterans have had to overcome adversity and distress at home, Helm said. Now they are looking forward to the island wide celebration they will have when the long-awaited project finally opens this Spring.
“We are going to have a big luau and this whole place will be packed,” Helm said.
Who is invited?
“The whole world,” Helm said with a big smile.