O’Keefe, Veterans back ballot measure to build new home in Bristol

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PROVIDENCE — Few people really “know” Michael O’Keefe, and to a great extent he likes it that way.

Those in East Providence who believe they know Mr. O’Keefe, fairly or not, see the former chairman of the state-appointed Budget Commission as a cold, calculating numbers cruncher.

To others around the rest of the East Bay area, they may have a passing knowledge of him due to his nearly two decades working in state government. Mr. O’Keefe came to Rhode Island in 1991 at the behest of then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun to become the State Budget Director, a position in which he stayed until 1995.

From that point until he retired in 2007, Mr. O’Keefe moved across the State House hallway to become the House of Representative’s Fiscal Adviser, a position offered to him by then East Providence Rep. George Caruolo.

These days, in between his work on the E.P. Budget Commission and his pursuits as an avid outdoorsman, people who “know” Mr. O’Keefe realize he has a deep emotional tie to another crucial cause: the passage of a state-wide referendum on the 2012 ballot for the construction of a new Veterans’ Home in Bristol. He does so as an Army Veteran of the Vietnam War and as a member of the Honor Our Veterans Committee.

“The existing home has 225 nursing home beds, but only 30 of those are Alzheimer’s beds. There are no assisted-living facilities in the current home,” Mr. O’Keefe said Thursday’s morning, Sept. 27, over breakfast at one of his favorite East Side of Providence eateries.

“The existing home is environmentally unsound. Maintenance is a nightmare. It’s old and dilapidated,” he continued. “The concept we’re working on is to build a brand new facility between the existing structure and the bay. It would have 225 beds plus 75 assisted-living beds. All Veterans’ groups in the state are behind it. It would be a much better facility and there is a desperate need for one.”

The $94 million bond measure is tagged Question No. 4 on the November ballot. The bond is general obligation, which is backed by the state. A significant portion of the project, just over 45 percent or $21.2 million of its initial cost, could be eligible for federal reimbursement. Mr. O’Keefe noted State Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr. (Dist. 69, Bristol/Portsmouth) has been one of the biggest proponents of the measure.

“The surge is coming and it is going to be huge,” warned Mr. O’Keefe, 67 and a North Providence resident, referring to the number of Vietnam Vets about to enter the elder-care system.

“I’m fortunate to be relatively healthy, but the guys coming up behind me have a lot of problems,” he added. “You’ve got people with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other mental illnesses. We were exposed to ‘Agent Orange,’ which no other veterans ever faced before. There’s a need for a different type of long-term care that the existing facility can’t handle.”

The Vets’ Home project is quite near and dear to Mr. O’Keefe. He served two, one-year tours of duty in Vietnam, both at significant heights of the conflict. From 1967 to ’68, he was a forward observer for a field artillery company as a lieutenant. Having completed flight school in the interim, he returned as a “Cobra” helicopter pilot as a captain from 1970 to ’71.

In essence, Mr. O’Keefe sees himself as a true “fortunate son,” someone who served active duty and returned home to lead a productive life. Too many of his brethren, however, haven’t been or aren’t as lucky as he.

“You do two tours of duty and you serve with a lot of people that weren’t as fortunate as I was,” Mr. O’Keefe concluded. “I don’t have any Purple Hearts. I don’t have any effects of ‘Agent Orange.’ My health is pretty good. Some people say I’m nuts, and they’re probably right.

“But you hear a lot about ‘survivor’s guilt.’ And a lot of that really is true. Of course you’re glad to be back, but it doesn’t always seem quite fair. When we were over there, the guys looked out for each other. Someone here now has to look out for those guys who are left.”

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