Vets allege mismanagement of retirement colony
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AP Photo OKSO108, OKSO109, OKSO107
By JUSTIN JUOZAPAVICIUS
Associated Press Writer
WILBURTON, Okla. (AP) — Nestled among the lush forests and mountain foothills of rural southeastern Oklahoma is a soldier’s utopia, a sleepy enclave where U.S. military veterans can claim their share of the American dream for pennies on the dollar.
For 75 years, the little-known United Spanish War Veterans Colony has offered vets an acre of tax-free land for only a couple hundred dollars, allowing them to build whatever they wish and live out their days in quiet retirement. No homeowners associations, no nursing homes, no red tape.
Here, the pecan trees are the tallest things around, and wild turkeys and deer outnumber residents. Most of the roads are barely wide enough for a single car.
But a dispute brewing in the colony could threaten the peaceful, communal way of life of the 110 veterans who live here. The opening salvo: Nearly two-dozen vets have accused colony leaders of financial mismanagement, and they say residents who question the improprieties are harassed and threatened with eviction.
"They have gotten such control over the residents through fear and intimidation that if you don’t keep your mouth shut, if you’re a whistleblower, they want you out of there," said Gordon Landrum, a Vietnam veteran and former member of the board that governs the colony.
Things have gotten so bad, some vets are threatening to take up arms to defend themselves.
"I’ve got $74 in the bank, no place to go and three clips and a .45," said Paul Skaggs, who survived the Vietnam War but considers this the toughest fight of his life.
"I’m just waiting for someone to take a shot at me."
Colony leaders dismiss the allegations, saying the disgruntled veterans have not formally brought their complaints to the board and accusing the group of taking a "warlike stance."
"If it’s war they want, it’s war they’ll get," said Michael West, a Vietnam veteran and board secretary. "We don’t want that, but I’m ready for them."
The colony has operated largely unnoticed for decades in the foothills of the Winding Stair Mountains, about 125 miles south of Tulsa. Soldiers from across the country typically learn about it from online chat rooms or friends of friends.
Landrum said he was ousted from the board two years ago after questioning the finances of the colony, which reported having more than $450,000 in the bank in 2006. He’s so tired of the harassment, he’s planning to pack whatever possessions will fit in an old horse trailer and head for Montana.
He left behind internal financial documents detailing the alleged mismanagement: thousands of dollars unaccounted for on annual financial reports, monthly beginning and ending balances that didn’t match up, and records of questionable purchases.
Mike Sherrill, a Vietnam veteran who has served several terms as board chairman, rejected the alleged discrepancies, calling them "minor errors that would happen to anybody balancing a checkbook."
He said the books are now in order, and he welcomed an outside audit of the colony’s finances — one request of the upset veterans.
"I’ve never taken a dime from this colony that didn’t belong to me," Sherrill said. "If I did anything wrong, which is possible because I’m human, it wasn’t intentional."
An Associated Press review of documents, and recent audits of colony finances, could not account for more than $4,000 in colony money. Among the discrepancies:
— Several checks were made out for cash with no record of a receipt or board approval.
— A $500 grant to the fire department from an electric cooperative was reported as $300 on the department’s books.
— The fire department issued a $2,000 check for the purchase of a new fire truck nearly a week before the advertisement for bids was published.
— The fire department did not properly document goods or services received.
The controversy is a far cry from the esprit de corps the 800-acre community was founded on.
Established in 1933 by a Spanish American War veterans’ organization, the colony provided home sites for returning soldiers.
To be admitted, honorably discharged wartime vets must be members of a service organization such as the VFW or American Legion. They pay a $200 deposit and $50 more for a background check. The fees, along with interest from long-term certificates of deposit, provide the bulk of income to operate the colony, which also gets revenue from timber and mineral rights on the land.
If the board approves an application, the veteran is assigned a share in the nonprofit and can apply for tract of land, typically a one-acre lot.
There were more than 330 shareholders in the colony as of 2006, but only about 110 live here. The colony could accommodate between 400 and 500 residents, according to some unofficial estimates.
Veterans are responsible for building a house and maintaining it, but their lots remain property of the colony — similar to how a mobile home park works. Many of them cannot work and rely on disability payments.
The board can remove a veteran for various bylaw violations, including abandoning a property, committing a felony or threatening violent acts against neighbors.
There are no building codes, so houses here come in all stripes. They range from shanties assembled with plywood and cinder blocks to $80,000-plus brick ranch homes. Trailer homes occupy many sites.
American flags fly outside many homes, and some residents decorate yards with military gear. One mailbox has a World War II-era soldier’s helmet soldered onto it.
West, the secretary of the board, said he would "certainly like the truth to come out" if a comprehensive audit is conducted.
"I know my hands are clean, that’s about all I can testify to," said West, who came to the colony three years ago. "I don’t know what previous boards did, and I don’t want to know."
In the meantime, peaceful retirement is on hold as veterans here weigh whether to take a side in the controversy.
"If they come in this yard, be prepared to bleed," said Brian Gilmore, who served in Laos and Cambodia, wears camouflage pants and talks like a warrior about to do battle. "They ain’t going to push this old boy around."