Veterans home turns 10

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HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Tracey Okutsu, right, admires a photograph of her grandfather, Yukio Okutsu, on Friday during the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home 10th anniversary celebration at the facility in Hilo.
HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Residents sit in the front row as members of the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy retire the colors Friday during the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home 10th anniversary celebration at the facility in Hilo.

Dozens of veterans, community members and dignitaries braved heavy rain Friday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hilo’s Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home.

The nursing home and adult health center opened its doors a little more than a decade ago as the first of its kind in the state. At the time, Hawaii was one of only three states that lacked a state veterans home.

It remains Hawaii’s only post-acute care and rehabilitation facility geared specifically for veterans, though a second veterans home on Oahu is being developed.

“I really thought (the first) should be here (in Hilo) because of the kind of care (residents) would receive in a smaller town,” Mayor Harry Kim said during the hourlong ceremony held under canopy tents pitched outside the facility, as he recalled being part of the original planning process.

The home, located on Waianuenue Avenue on the Hilo Medical Center campus, is named after the late Yukio Okutsu, one of Hilo’s military heroes from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Its planning process began in spring 2001 after the Veterans Affairs Clinic opened, also located on the Hilo Medical Center campus.

Construction began in 2005 and took about two years. The project cost $33 million after factoring in demolition of the old Hilo hospital. The home has been managed by Avalon Health Care since it opened.

Attendees on Friday lauded the facility’s growth — capacity often hovers just shy of its 95-bed limit.

“I remember coming here when the facility opened, and there were like four to five patients at that time,” said former County Councilman Dennis Onishi, who spoke at the event as Gov. David Ige’s representative. “So it’s grown to capacity, and that’s really great to see.”

Many current residents in wheelchairs occupied the first few rows during the ceremony. Several wore big grins and sang along enthusiastically to the national anthem and “Hawaii Pono‘i.”

“I’m glad we have (a veterans home) here on the island,” said resident Earl Kakugawa, 71. “I think there’s more local aloha that comes from here. It’s really special, the care we get from here.”

“I think it’s great,” added resident Michael Kelly, 79. “We really need more (facilities for veterans). Here in Hilo we have a bunch of people who need them and more who are going to (in the future).”

Also in attendance were two of Okutsu’s grandchildren, Hilo residents Tracey Okutsu, 31, and Kelsie Yoshida, 43.

Yoshida said she hopes to see facilities and care options for veterans in the state expand.

Tracey Okutsu added that their grandfather was “a man of few words” and “not someone who liked the spotlight,” but he’d be pleased at the success of the home today.

“I think he would just say, ‘Thank you,’” Tracey Okutsu said.

Hawaii has more than 121,000 veterans, speaker Col. Neal Mitsuyoshi, chief engineer for the state Department of Defense, said at the ceremony.

He said there is a shortfall of 170 beds for veterans needing a long-term care home. The Oahu veterans home will add an additional 95 beds, Mitsuyoshi said.

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