#MySoldiersHome Stories, Photos and Memories

Below please find a sampling of stories we’ve received from the #MySoldiersHome campaign. For more information on the effort and to learn how you can submit your story, click here.

#MySoldiersHome according to Gene Mueller, Host of 620-WTMJ’s Wisconsin Morning News (written when the District was named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 most endangered historic places):

You might drive by it every day and give it nary a thought.

For a chunk of my life, it was part of my weekly routine.

The Soldiers Home at Wood goes on the National Register of Endangered Historic places this week. It’s amazing it took this long for that to happen, considering the site’s significance.

The collection of buildings dates back to the Civil War and is the last of it’s kind still standing in the U.S. Many are in disrepair with holes in their roofs. I’m not into architecture all that much, but I know history when I see it.

And, there was a time when I saw those buildings alot.

It was the late 60’s, when I was in junior high school in Sheboygan. Dad wasn’t feeling all that good, and our worst fears were confirmed: cancer of the lungs, throat and tongue. Since he was a World War II vet with less than stellar health insurance through work, he was sent to the VA hospital for surgery.

His battle included frequent return visits for more operations, radiation, and other treatments which meant near weekly visits for my mom, my sister (she was the only one who could drive) and me. There was no I-43 back then–we got to Milwaukee via the old Highway 141. We knew we were in the Big City when we passed the old Milky Way custard stand on Port Washington Road. Then came the Marquette Interchange, the short drive west on 94 past County Stadium (I’d snap my neck trying to peek inside when the Packers and Brewers were playing, hoping for a glimpse of something, anything other than the thousands of cars parked in the lots). We’d hop off at the ballpark exit and start the long, winding drive up the hill through the Soldiers Home grounds to the VA hospital.

I didn’t know then what I know now: how the Soldiers Home was the predecessor to to veterans care, or the fact that the buildings dated back to the 1870’s. They were cool, they were old, they were even kinda spooky especially at twilight. Vets still lived there back then–they even had bleachers atop the hill, a place where the guys could knothole when there was something going on in the ballpark below. It was a vibrant, functional facility.

Dad died in the fall of 1970 and I’ve made only a handful of trips back since. The grounds have since fallen into disrepair, and it’s hoped this week’s designation will kick-start a revival. Seems like a no-brainer, but these aren’t ordinary times and money is tight.

Let’s hope cash can be found the preserve this bit of Milwaukee history. Too many architectural wonders from the city’s past met premature ends, back in the days when “old” meant “needs to go”. Our thought process is different now. It’s just a matter of getting pocketbooks to mesh with wish lists.

I don’t have deep pockets but I do have strong memories. Today’s news is giving me the urge to take the long way home. I’ll get off 944 at Miller Park and take the long, winding road up to the VA to rekindle some memories and see once again a bit of the city that sorely needs to be repurposed.

#MySoldiersHome according to Peter Zanghi, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance:

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home is unlike any other place I’ve visited. It’s fascinating how such an important and historic part of Milwaukee is hidden in plain view, considering the Soldiers Home grounds’ geographic size and number of historic buildings that dot the landscape. Every time I visit, I’m amazed at how serene the place is. Even though it’s bordered on two sides by an interstate highway and baseball stadium, just minutes from Downtown, it still feels very far removed from being near the heart of a busy metropolitan area. What really sets the grounds apart, however, is the fantastic late 19th century architecture that still stands today. Milwaukee is lucky to have these buildings reside in its midst, as they are truly unique and help tell America’s story. The fact that such a beautiful campus was constructed solely for veterans care speaks well of our ancestors; today, its existence honors the men and women who fought for our freedoms and those who continue to do so.

#MySoldiersHome according to Veteran Leo Bethge:

I’ve always had a passion for architecture and specifically how it affects the human spirit. When I was a kid, I always knew of that old victorian tower of Old Main, but after I served and came back for care, there were many occasions that I sat and contemplated my own thoughts. Though I was dealing with my own level of PTSD, I absorbed the gracious surroundings of mature trees and buildings designed to mend the body and spirit. There is peace and tranquility at this site, which is what us veterans need.

All of the buildings need to be rehabbed since they are history and the future. There are many needs of today’s homecoming vets that need to be fulfilled, and these buildings could serve these needs, of which also includes the grounds surrounding these historic buildings. I believe in preservation, since these buildings tell a story for today’s and future generations – but these buildings, like cemetaries, are special places worthy of special protection and preservation.

#MySoldiersHome according to Howard Hinterthuer, Vietnam Veteran and Communications Coordinator/Editor at the Center for Veterans Issues:

As a boy, I gazed across the right field fence at County Stadium and saw hundreds of veterans blanketing the hillside in front of Old Main. “What’s that Dad?” I asked.

“That is the Veterans Home,” he replied. “They are guys who were wounded during the war.”

“What are they doing?” I asked.

“Watching the game,” he said. “They can see over the fence from up there.”

It’s nice to know they have a place, I thought to myself. The shingled look of Old Main seemed like a voice from the past, with stories to tell.

Vietnam vets like me were told not to wear our uniforms on the flight from Seattle to our homes. “There’s no sense in stirring up trouble with protesters in airports,” the army advised. I’m sure it was intended as a kindness. They sincerely wished us a safe journey and hoped we wouldn’t bloody the nose of someone taunting “baby killer!”

Veterans from all wars have often struggled with a variety of issues coming home. In my case, my girlfriend had “gone hippy” and was living with another guy. My parents were in Europe. I had no one to pick me up at the airport, and thoughts of sleeping in my own bed were nothing more than a dream. Mom had turned my room into an office. To me the message seemed to be, “We didn’t think you’d come home.” In truth, it is more likely I was just simply off of their day-to-day radar—sort of a non-person.

But readjusting to “home” is also problematic in the sense that each of us had been profoundly changed. My friend, Robert, spent a month on the couch sleeping, emotionally paralyzed. His mom finally said, “Robert. You have to get off the couch and do something.”

So Robert went back to Vietnam as a civilian, got off the plane in Saigon, kissed the tarmac, hitched a ride back to his old unit, and opened a bar. Robert told me, “Vietnam seemed more like home to me. It also made more sense.”

Here’s the whacky thing: I understood perfectly how he felt.

The military has been dumping broken people back into civilian life since David slew Goliath. At times we’ve done a good job addressing their physical wounds. My training as a clinical specialist was world class. As a twenty-two-year-old, I was effective in my job and well prepared for a host of unbelievable challenges. We knew how to deal with all sorts of physical insults. But psychological and spiritual pain is a tougher nut to crack, diagnosis- and treatment-wise.

Returning veterans need a healing environment where they are able to transition from the insanity and loss of personal control that characterize combat, to a state of relative calm and personal safety. They need another sort of “basic training,” the kind that will prepare them for normality. All vets need it, to varying degrees, and honestly, it is hard to predict who will need it or when issues may bubble up.

The Veterans Home could serve the purposes of “retraining” vets for civilian life, and touching up the dents along the way. It can also be a research institution devoted to developing effective methodologies.

In many ways, The Veterans Home is the perfect setting. The historic architecture, mature trees, bucolic grounds, and village ambience speak of solid continuity and calm. Even the cemetery says, “You will be cared for and cared about.” These elements have iconic value. Combine them with meaningful activities that engage and connect vets with each other and with their families, and you have a recipe for success.

That’s the way it looks from here.

#MySoldiersHome according to James Madlom of Mueller Communications:

I first noticed Soldiers Home while looking out the concourse at Miller Park and wondering about the tower of the building I now know is Old Main. But it wasn’t until the site was named one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places that I actually went to campus, experienced it first hand and learned of its history. Nothing can prepare you for for the power of place, the tranquility of the landscape and the beauty of the buildings. You immediately know you are in a special, sacred place. It is alive with history and with healing. To hear the stories about Soldiers from veterans – young and old, contemporary and historic – is to recognize the importance of the District. It is not only a place of healing, but a tangible sign of our community’s commitment to our veterans. Together we can renew that commitment and restore these buildings to the service of our veterans.

#MySoldiersHome according to Shelby Keefe of Shelby Keefe Studio:

Every time I come up to these beautiful grounds, I am moved and amazed by the buildings. I plan on doing a series of paintings depicting these historic and irreplaceable structures. I hope to give them new life on canvas, if not in bricks and mortar.

#MySoldiersHome according to Megan Daniels, member of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance:

I first experienced the National Soldiers Home in Milwaukee on an unexpectedly warm, sunny April afternoon. I had gone in search of the almost haunting tower that loomed over the tree line just west of Miller Park; it was unlike any other in the city beckoning my curiosity from across the freeway. The nature of the former recuperative village took hold of my afternoon where I pleasantly strolled between the buildings rekindling the grounds original use as center for veteran healing and a tranquil park for the residents of Milwaukee.

#MySoldiersHome according to Bob Curry, Vietnam Veteran and Founder of DryHootch:

I first discovered these gems of history when I strolled up a hill taking a break from my PTSD groups at the VA Hospital. These grounds and buildings talked of an earlier time, when healing was not just about pills and procedures. It was about nature, fresh air, and majestic trees; where the buildings themselves are art. A place where the community helped heal their veterans by visiting on the weekends, both enjoying music in the park and the company of each other. We could learn much from these healers of a century ago, to help our newest generation of veterans heal their wounds of war.

#MySoldiersHome according to Diane L. Hatchell, PhD:

I did my graduate school training and research at Wood VA Hospital in the laboratory of Shirley Johnson, PhD, from 1963-1968. After I obtained my PhD in physiology from Marquette University in 1968, I was employed as a Research Scientist at Wood VA and rose to the rank of Professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I moved to the Durham NC VA Hospital and Duke University in 1983. I retired in 2000 and returned to Wisconsin as a year round resident in 2009. I am proud of my 30 plus years of service in the Veterans Administration

I regret that I never took time to explore the National Soldiers Home in the 20 years that I worked on the Wood VA campus. Their stately presence on campus was readily apparent and we were proud that retired veterans were cared for there. I don’t know how the buildings were allowed to deteriorate but believe that it would be very sad for the memories contained there to be eradicated by loss of the buildings and failure to develop the grounds for use by the public and especially veterans. It would be wonderful to see the buildings restored to their prior glory and put to use in the service of veterans. I strongly support the Consensus Report and look forward to being part of the process in some way.

#MySoldiersHome according to Richard Bowen:

I love the un-landscaped rolling hills, the pathways and the small lakes. The building architecture is outstanding and gives one a clear view of the past. I have biked through the grounds many times and it is a good place to bike. I enjoy the historical plaques and was able to spend some time in the library.

#MySoldiersHome according to Laura Lutter Cole:

I moved to Milwaukee in 1997, and being a huge Civil War historical enthusiast, read about The Old Soldiers Home. Little did I know just four years later I would live less than a mile away and be able to enjoy its grandeur on a regular basis. Then I learned my Uncle was buried there, so it’s even more special to me.

Living in a nearby neighborhood, I visit Wood [Cemetery] regularly. While walking my dog I enjoy the peaceful serenity and take in the beauty of the buildings, landscape, and truly appreciate our fortune as a community to have this rare historic treasure in our backyard.

#MySoldiersHome according to Meghan Deutsch:

Its the most amazingly beautiful place–the rolling hills of green, all the trees. Its a peaceful place of remembrance. I love all of the history that it holds–the memories of the people that will live there forever and the amazing buildings. I can only imagine all of the amazing stories that the places hold.

#MySoldiersHome according to Hugh Swofford:

My great Uncle lived on the grounds. He was in the domiciliary until he was in his 90’s and then was moved to the VA hospital. I visited him there in 1978 when he was about 100.

#MySoldiersHome according to Jose Dehoyos, Veteran, US Marines:

It’s on a sacred and respected location with so much history and when I’m there taking pictures it helps me relax and think about all the spirits that are still there.

#MySoldiersHome according to Michael Smith, Veteran, US Army:

Over the years, the peaceful setting most certainly must have contributed to the rehabilitation and renewal of many of the residents.

We are extremely fortunate to have this Soldiers Home here in Milwaukee. We should marshall all possible resources, public and private, to preserve this fabulous resource for our veterans of today and tomorrow.

#MySoldiersHome according to Maryangnes Kuehmichel, Veteran, Womens’ Air Force:

For me as a Nam vet it always helps even to drive through the grounds and see the beauty both manmade and natural. This new batch of vets seem to be having more physical trauma due to the IEDs so anything that calms and helps them heal is beneficial

#MySoldiersHome according to John Hien, Veteran, US Army:

I think vets, certainly disabled vets, who lived there thought “This was built for me” and appreciated what was offered.

I hope the buildings are not torn down, but rehabbed, preserving their beauty and elegance, and made useful again.

#MySoldiersHome according to F. Eric Utz:

People heal in many different ways. Being in a first class rehabbed historic building can be one step in the process.

The Soldier’s Home is a national treasure. It needs the investment it deserves.

#MySoldiersHome according to Arvid Tillman:

I was a laborer in the late 50’s working my way through college. I was unloading box cars of bricks at the nearby railroad siding and transporting them to what has now become the main hospital. Before work, during the lunch our and sometimes after work, I used to spend time with the veterans and listen to their war stories and music. One fellow played an amazing banjo and it really was a great attraction to me… I learned to respect what those felllows did for us.

#MySoldiersHome according to Linda Marker:

I was a nursing instructor from UWM and had senior students who did a rotation with the Dom vets when they still lived in the main dom building. The first day of clinical we got a tour of all the buildings- the library, Ward theater, the chapel. Even then- 1979 and 1980 -the buildings needed repair. We had a Christmas party for the Dom vets in the library and I dressed up as Santa and the students provided food and decorations. Our time with the vets and this special place will not be forgotten. I believe the vets felt special having these students and the students and I sure felt honored. I very much hope this place can be saved!

#MySoldiersHome according to Carol Herman:

I have seen that big tall tower from the freeway as well as the cemetery driving by many times over many years and always wondered about it…I rented a car in Fall 2013 and drove over to the historic district and cemetery, I’m glad I did. I marveled at all the old buildings and the history of the entire area. I Was very amazed by all. I have been doing research on Milwaukee County since the mid 1980s, and as I get older…I really appreciate the history of Milwaukee. This area was the highlight!

#MySoldiersHome according to Elizabeth Hummitzsch, Mueller Communications:

My first experience with Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home Historic District was when it was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I remember learning about the buildings and remarking that I hadn’t heard of them before. I went out to the District to walk around the site and I remember seeing Old Main for the first time and shortly after, seeing this picture.

The size and detail of Old Main is overwhelming. If you haven’t seen it in-person I recommend getting out to the site. The building itself incites a sense of awe but then to step back and think about the history it possess makes it even more powerful. To see it open to the elements and threatened due to the roof collapse was saddening. I am encouraged by recent efforts to stabilize the building – all in the name of returning it to the service of our veterans, its original purpose.

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