KEARNEY, Neb. — One by one as they crossed the threshold to their new home, the new occupants of the Central Nebraska Veterans Home were met with applause, handshakes and “Welcome to Kearney” greetings.
“This is a helluva welcome,” said James Murphy, 76, a U.S. Army veteran who was the first resident to enter the new facility.
Murphy’s moving buddy, Diane Kelly of Kearney, drove Murphy to Kearney from the Grand Island Veterans Home on Wednesday morning.
The first charter bus arrived at the Kearney home around 10 a.m. Eighteen Nebraska Patriot Guard motorcyclists and other members stood at attention outside the doors of Juliet, the main building at the veterans complex, holding U.S. and military flags. Residents arrived in charter buses, vehicles and two ambulances.
A crowd of about 150 dignitaries — including Gov. Pete Ricketts, Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse, city manager Mike Morgan and members of the Kearney American Legion and VFW — filled Juliet’s lobby. After the residents were greeted, they were taken to their rooms to get settled by family members, moving helpers, veterans home staffers or members of the neighboring Nebraska Army National Guard.
The 92 residents of the Grand Island Veterans Home made the move to their new Kearney home in three waves.
The first group left Grand Island at about 9 a.m., with a sign on the back of Arrow buses reading “very special people inside.”
“I think we’ve done real well this morning,” Veterans Home Administrator Alex Willford said. He credited “great employees and great volunteers.” Helping the veterans move were about 200 staff members, volunteers and family members.
John Hilgert, director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs, rode to Kearney on the first bus. He said residents took note of the police escort in Gibbon and the law enforcement officers staged along U.S. Highway 30, he said.
“The community support is just amazing,” Hilgert said.
Clouse echoed Hilgert.
Clouse has been involved since the beginning of the process to bring the veterans home to Kearney.
“Just to see the sparkle in their eyes, and the fact they have a new home. The outpouring of all the veterans groups, the military and the community has just been outstanding. It’s just a communitywide effort,” Clouse said.
The Grand Island Veterans Home, which was originally open only to Union veterans of the Civil War, welcomed its first veteran in 1888. It was established the year before as the Soldiers and Sailors Home.
With Wednesday’s move, for the first time in 132 years, veterans will not call it home. Plans are still being developed for the campus.
After the decision was made to move the home from Grand Island to Kearney, Ricketts announced in 2015 that the state would return the 640-acre site to the City of Grand Island in two phases.
The first phase included turning over to the city the majority of land composed of recreation areas and farmland in 2016. Plans are to convert that land into the Veterans Legacy Project. That long-term project will probably take 20 to 40 years to complete and consists of creating recreational space, an educational campus and business opportunities.
The rest of the property, which includes the approximately 50 acres that house the veterans home, cemetery and club, is planned to be transferred in phase two. When and if that happens remains to be seen.
In December, Grand Island City Administrator Marlan Ferguson said the city has not “signed the dotted line” to take the buildings. Upkeep will be expensive, and plans are still being developed on how they could be used.
This report includes material from the Grand Island Independent.