Retirement Home Gets First Active Duty Director Since 1885
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2002 As a youngster, Arnold Smith used to tag along with his pastor to what was affectionately called "The Old Soldiers' Home." Young Smith tagged along mainly because the preacher gave him money to buy candy.
Army Col. Arnold Smith, the new director of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, chats with retired Sgt. 1st Class Joseph F. Scharrer, 80, who has been a resident since February 1993. Photo by Rudi Williams.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Smith, now 49, has returned "home" here, but not to satisfy his sweet tooth. Today, he's the director of the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly known as the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home. He's the first active duty director of the home since 1885. Congress passed a measure in the 2002 Defense Authorization Act making the position an active duty slot.
"If my pastor hadn't given me the 50 cents for candy, I wouldn't know anything about The Old Soldiers' Home," said the Army colonel, who became director on May 20. "I think few people know about the retirement home because of what it used to be called.
"When you think of The Old Soldiers' Home as a child, and even as an adult, you think about people who aren't able to take care of themselves mentally, physically or emotionally," said Smith, the former deputy director of human resources policy for the Army's top personnel office at the Pentagon. "I had no idea there was so much energy and robustness on this campus."
Calling the residents "beneficiaries of their own goodwill," Smith said he wants to spread the word across the nation about the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington and the Naval Home in Gulfport, Miss. He pointed out that eligible members from all the services can live at either retirement home when they become age 60. Coast Guardsmen also are eligible, but only if they served with the Navy during wartime.
Smith said his goal is to let as many Americans as possible, military and civilian, know that there is a place where people "who made history, made the nation great and helped create the greatest armed forces in the world are taken care of."
He pointed out that both retirement homes are relaxing and secure, independent-living facilities with affordable medical care for future and long-term needs, on-campus clinical and dental services, including eye exams and prescriptions. Residents also enjoy comfortable, private rooms with baths, three meals daily, social and enrichment activities, fitness facility, recreational facilities and a host of other amenities.
Smith calls himself fortunate and blessed to be the director. "I see it as an opportunity to grow and help others grow, particularly the residents and employees here," he said. Enhancing the quality of life of all the people who live, work and play at the retirement home is his most important goal, he said.
"I took a walk this afternoon and found it very inspirational talking to these folks," said Smith. He said the home isn't talked about enough in the civilian and military communities, consequently, most people don't know about the people who live there.
"I'm going to do the absolute best I can to make this the premier continuing-care retirement community in the world. The people who live here deserve the best and they're going to get all I have for the next two years," he said. "When I look into the eyes of these residents, I see hope. I truly see the future. It's funny that I look at it like that because they're so much older than me."
Chuckling about a resident who told him about things he did in 1950, Smith said, "I let him know that that was two years before I was born. He was just as sharp as he could be.
"I met another gentleman yesterday who told me he was 81 years old and he's just as spry as he can be," Smith said. "He's futuristic, talking about what he's going to do tomorrow, not what he used to do. I want to be like that one day."
During another stroll around the campus, Smith saw an elderly woman bending over picking up trash. "Your immediate thought is, 'she shouldn't be bending over like that,'" he said. "But then again, she should be because she can."
Out of concern for the woman, Smith asked her if he could take the trash from her and dispose of it. "No," she replied. "There's no need for both of us to get our hands dirty.
"Let me show you what we want to do," the woman said as she led the colonel to a monument by the retirement home's chapel.
"She explained that they were going to get a water hose and some bleach because somebody told her that would clean all that black stuff off the monument," said Smith. "Look at all the wherewithal within that young lady that's several years older than I am. How can you not be inspired when you meet and greet folks like that?"
Smith has always held an affinity for the military and its people, partly because several members of his family served in the armed forces.
"I was a young high schooler who had no intention of going to college," said the 1974 graduate of Central State University of Ohio. "My goal was to graduate from high school, join the Army and become a staff sergeant. That was because, at the time, my big brother was a staff sergeant and I had cousins and uncles in the Army. So most of my associations were with sergeants."
His goal was thwarted when his big brother was wounded in Vietnam during Smith's senior year in high school. He was 17, and his mother refused to sign for him to join the Army.
Then something happened that changed his life forever. His big brother talked him into going to college instead of joining the Army. He explained that after his 18th birthday he could enlist without his mother's signature, if that was still his desire.
Even though he was in ROTC in college, Smith still wanted to be a staff sergeant. Living with his sister and her husband, both of whom were on the university's faculty, Smith spent the summer months with his big brother at Fort Myer, Va. His brother was a member of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard.
One night he saw a performance by the Pershing Rifles Drill Team -- tossing rifles around with precision -- and he said to himself, "I want to do that." Smith thought about quitting ROTC so he wouldn't have to be a lieutenant, quitting college after a year, joining the Army and going to Vietnam.
"But 28 years later, I'm glad I didn't quit ROTC," said Smith, who later received a three-year Army ROTC scholarship. The accounting major graduated with honors as a distinguished military student and distinguished military graduate. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in Army field artillery.
The combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers and was later joined by a younger brother. Four of the five boys in his family served in the armed forces, three in the Army and one in the Air Force. One is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, another is a retired sergeant first class and a deceased brother was a retied Air Force master sergeant.
He also has six sisters, none of whom served in the military.
The native Washingtonian is the son of a carpenter father and a mother who was a "maintenance engineer" -- janitor -- at the University of Maryland and later worked in the university's home economics department. She retired after 31 years at the university.
Smith's wife, Joyce, is also an accountant. The couple has three sons: Arnold Jr., 25, a park ranger with the Palisades Park Commission in New York; Anton, 24, is a logistics administrator and a 2002 graduate of Purdue University's graduate business school,; and Aaron, 18, a freshman at the University of Maryland and a walk-on wide receiver on the football team.
For more information on the Washington and Gulfport retirement homes, including resident eligibility rules, visit www.afrh.com.