Because chance met with compassion, and compassion led to commitment, a local veteran who’d seen some of the worst of humanity has now experienced some of the best of what a community can do.
To Pat Gorski, a Navy veteran who served for 11 years as a hospital corpsman including time in Da Nang, Vietnam at China Beach as an operating room technician during the Vietnam War, the house at 505 Old Clinton Road in Westbrook has always been her home. It was her home first as a child then again later, when she returned to live there to care for her ailing parents until they died. When she developed her own disabilities, she could no longer maintain the house with her limited financial resources. Decades passed, and the home deteriorated. Only a chance stop there in late spring 2014 by Army veteran and tree service owner Bruce Fagan of American Home & Tree, LLC, altered the home’s downward spiral.
Fagan had stopped at her home because he saw that a tree had fallen on her roof. Wanting to help another veteran in need, he offered to remove it at no charge. Upon entering her home and talking with Pat, he soon realized the 250-year old house needed a lot more than just a tree branch removed from the roof: The home had no heat and no water and she didn’t have the money to address the issues. So Fagan reached out to the Elks Lodge Veterans Committee, and Operation China Beach was born.
One of that operation’s final chapters was written on Nov. 5, when Connecticut House of Heroes volunteer Steve Cavanaugh and his firm Biltmore Construction team spent a full day replacing the leaky roof with a new one. Old cedar shingles were removed, new plywood roof decking was installed, and asphalt shingles were laid.
This is was a key milestone in this two-year long volunteer-driven project to help Gorski.
The story of Operation China Beach, as told by Elks Lodge Veterans Committee Chair Phil Sengle, is a heartwarming one. Among the first volunteers to sign on, in addition to Sengle and Elks member John Soehnlein, was the Connecticut House of Heroes (www.houseofheroes.org and www.hohct.org), a non-profit organization led by Bill May and Kathy Eastburn. Next came Work Vessels for Veterans (www.workvesselsforvets.org) and Justin Nash from ’Til Duty is Done (www.facebook.com/tildutyisdone). All agreed to help.
The project work began after Fagan got permission from Gorski to inspect the house and its interior with a few of the professional contractor volunteers. Needs were identified: a leaking roof, no water, no heat, poor or no insulation, and a lack of modern electrical service—and those were just the critical problems. Another was that she “liked to keep things,” according to volunteers, and those things had accumulated. Town officials and Social Services Coordinator Elizabeth Carpenter then also stepped in to help her to clear the home of these unneeded items.
“From July through September  on Saturdays, volunteers assembled and filled town-supplied 12- and 20-yard Dumpsters under the guidance of Bruce Fagan and his friend Lisa Jordyn. Approximately 16 Dumpster loads were removed,” said Sengle.
The team then rehabbed the two first-floor rooms, one for Gorski to use as a bedroom and sitting room and other, as a basic kitchen and first-floor bathroom—Gorski had mobility issues and the single, second-floor bathroom presented challenges. Connecticut Water Company agreed to install city water—the main goes down Old Clinton Road—and Bob Pollack and plumber Harry Speers helped with the interior installation. Clinton Plumbing and Heating Supply donated materials. New England Road, Inc., cut the pavement, dug the trench, backfilled, and patched the street to finally bring her running water. That phase of the project was finished Dec. 2, 2014.
Then on Nov. 5, Biltmore, Inc., a volunteer from CT House of Heroes, and Fagan worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. to give Gorski’s home a new roof. The Westbrook Elks Lodge donated all of the new roof’s materials. Dunkin Donuts of Westbrook donated breakfast sandwiches and coffee for the workers. Simon’s Deli donated pizza for workers’ lunches. Subway of Clinton also donated sandwiches.
“It should be pointed out...that all that met Pat liked her immediately and later on, it’s fair to say, we love her. This only increased our desire to help,” said Sengle. “She is intelligent, humorous, charming, and never complains.”