Veterans inspire staff at Smithfield nursing home

Veterans inspire staff at Smithfield nursing home

Thomas Pankowicz, a navy Seabee veteran, was stationed in Vietnam for three years. (Breeze photos by Jackie Roman)

SMITHFIELD – When Cindy Pereira first began working as activities director at Hebert Health and Rehabilitation 13 years ago, she initially planned to update the facility’s aging electronics by purchasing a flat screen television.

But a vocal group of residents, made up of dozens of veterans, asked Pereira if they could have a flag pole installed outside the building instead.

“I was stunned,” Pereira said. “Once we talked about it, it made sense.”

When the flag pole was installed 10 years ago, she said, “everybody was in tears.”

Hebert is currently home to 35 veterans, a significant percentage of the 133-bed facility. Their presence has contributed to a culture of patriotism and a deep respect for service members, according to Pereira.

“When they salute the flag, it’s from the heart,” she said.

The activities director said she has personally been profoundly impacted by the veterans, some of whom suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or painful disabilities as a result of their service.

“I don’t have any veterans in my immediate family,” she said. “This was totally new to me.”

Since the flag pole was erected, Pereira has also organized an annual Veterans Day ceremony at Hebert, which includes readings highlighting the everyday heroes who live among us.

Pereira said the poem “You Can’t Tell a Vet Just by Looking” captures the diversity of the Ocean State’s 67,800 veterans.

“He is the parade-riding legionnaire who pins on his ribbons and medals with a prosthetic hand / He is the white-haired guy bagging groceries at the supermarket, aggravatingly slow, who helped liberate a Nazi death camp,” it reads.

Concluding the annual ceremony, members of the American Legion Balfour Cole Post 64 present each veteran with a certificate of appreciation and an American flag.

William Gallagher is among the 35 veterans who will be honored at this year’s event. Gallagher, who is an artillery army veteran, was stationed in South Korea for 14 months. His only regret is that he did not serve sooner. Seven years prior to being drafted, Gallagher was rejected from the service due to a heart condition.

“I felt bad because all my friends went before me,” Gallagher said.

Asked about the importance of Hebert’s annual Veterans Day ceremony, Gallagher said he does not need the recognition. He was just doing his duty, he said.

Dottie, Gallagher’s wife of 62 years, said “it’s very important.”

“They fought for us,” she said, before reaching for her husband’s hand.

Thomas Pankowicz, a navy Seabee veteran who served in Vietnam, said he also tends to be embarrassed during the Veterans Day ceremony.

“I was just doing my duty,” Pankowicz said.

Resident Anio Granata, who joined the Navy and served in World War II when he was 17 years old, agreed: “I did my duty.”

Their responses are common, Pereira said.

“These people are so humble, they never ask for recognition,” she said. “That’s why we do this.”

Since becoming activities director at Hebert Health & Rehabilitation 13 years ago, Cindy Pereira has grown closer with the facility’s veterans community. “When they salute the flag, it’s from the heart,” Pereira said.