WALLA WALLA — What’s happened to Jesse Barton might be the epitome of being “Walla Walla,” and has people from elsewhere shaking their heads.
Especially Jesse Barton.
This most recent chapter of Jesse’s story began two weeks ago and finished up on Tuesday this week. It’s a bit of a circle, but hang on and I’ll get you around the loops.
You should know Jesse is 85 years old. Along the way to reaching that age, he served his country in three separate tours of duty, starting with getting drafted for service in Korea in 1945. That was followed by an enlistment for 14 months in combat in that country, then a stint in Alaska as a telephone installer and repairman for the U.S. Army, where he dodged moose, among other hazards.
“I tell you what,” Jesse told me, “you had to be pretty careful when you were outside. You didn’t dare ever stick your tongue on something.”
Born in Idaho and raised in La Grande, Ore., the veteran has made Walla Walla home — he’s not sure why, but the town just called his name — for the better part of half a century. He worked construction, mostly, and never got around to getting married or having children, he said. “So I wound up retiring here.”
Now Jesse lives in a senior housing facility in College Place, held hostage by leaky heart valves, the need for a wheelchair and oxygen after pneumonia took its toll a few years back. Staff where he lives transports whomever wants to go shopping, but only once a week and only to Walmart, he said.
And that’s OK, Jesse added. After he pays for his room, board and health insurance, the $1,200 he receives in Social Security and veterans benefits is whittled down to $62. Prices at the big box store stretch the money as far as possible, he said. “The things I have to buy is shaving lotion, soap, toothpaste, razor blades, that stuff. I’m usually down to the nubbins by the end of the month, but it takes care of it. I watch that very carefully.”
That’s how Jesse has rolled since Walmart opened its door here, he noted. He even carried a Walmart credit card balance until his economical sense told him to drop credit accounts.
It was the same sense that suggested Jesse should let his drivers license expire three years ago, as well. With age comes wisdom, in the best circumstances.
Since then, the College Place man has used his Veterans Affairs medical card for check identification, which was never a problem at Walmart, he said. Until Nov. 8.
That’s the day first one Walmart employee, then two, told the man his VA medical card — even with Jesse’s picture on it — was of no use as identification. Although they were sorry, company policy demanded something with a set of numbers on it, the two said.
Numbers used to be on Jesse’s VA cards, but those Social Security numbers were dropped from medical cards about a year ago to protect the cardholders, officials said.
Those employees were correct in their action, noted Walmart company spokeswoman Dianna Gee. “This is policy and we try to make it standard across the board.” The company was founded by a veteran and supports all things veteran as much as possible, but it also believes in protecting all customers and that means guarding against check fraud, she added. Hence the need for valid identification that includes numbers to punch into the system.
The cashiers here told Jesse he should obtain a Washington state ID card. In the meantime he was stuck, unable to buy the denture cream and a book of stamps he needed. The tab was $14.98.
In the first good thing to happen in this tale, a man stepped up to pay Jesse’s tab. “He was standing right behind me,” Jesse said. “I asked him what I could do to make restitution and he said ‘Don’t worry about it, buddy. Don’t worry about it.’”
Once home, the veteran began calling around, clueless as to how he could get that state identification card. There was the transportation issue of getting down to the Department of Licensing, and those cards cost $45. On $62 a month, it’s an impossible sum.
A search did produce the old drivers license, he said, “but that won’t do me any good now.”
Somehow, and no one can figure out how, Jesse reached Rhonda Detray with the state’s Department of Information Services. It’s not what she usually does — her office provides information technology assistance to state and local agencies, school districts, tribal organizations and qualifying nonprofit groups — but Rhonda called Walmart on Jesse’s behalf.
That conversation didn’t go as she hoped, she told me in an email that night. One manager at the store seemed to brush off the situation, again citing policy and offering no solutions. “I have worked retail before and know they can use a key or code to override a cash register,” Rhonda assured me. “I don’t remember being so disgusted in a very long time.”
She sent her angst and Jesse’s information over to the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, where Colleen Gilbert took over.
Second lucky stroke for the veteran … Jesse also had some questions and concerns about his veterans benefits that had been nagging at him. He just didn’t know where to turn for help, he told me.
Colleen contacted John Waterbrook, who helps vets with VA benefit claims in Walla Walla. John, of course, knows folks over at Walmart, Colleen said to me. “It’s one of the first things he told me.”
So John, along with Brian Westfield, who heads the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center, talked to Jesse and talked to Walmart.
“They acknowledged the incident,” John said. But the store was also working out ways to help the veteran, a manager told John.
Absolutely, Dianna from corporate Walmart agreed. “This was an unusual circumstance and we understand his frustration. We want to make it up to Mr. Barton by helping him get that state ID. Everyone needs a legal form of ID.”
Yet when Jesse was contacted by Jamie Kennedy, general manager of the College Place Walmart, he hung up on him, the veteran conceded. “As you can imagine, I was really mad they wouldn’t cash my check. Walmart is the only place I have to go to get anything.”
Nonetheless, he understand there is “a lot of check writing going on and I can understand they are tightening down on things. A lot of it is affecting us, too. But I am stuck in this place, I haven’t got much choice of anything.”
In the warm season, Jess uses his motorized wheelchair to get to town and back, he explained. However, many spots are inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs. “You’re just out of luck.”
For the moment, however, Jesse’s luck is looking up. Jamie Kennedy refused to be derailed and tried again to make things right. On Tuesday he did just that when he arranged for Jesse to be driven to the Department of Licensing and then paid for the state identification card. It went perfectly, Jamie said Wednesday. “All told, it didn’t take more than 15 minutes.”
Make that the third glass of lemonade to come from this particular lemon.
With legal ID in his possession, today will be a good Thanksgiving, Jesse said. “I never expected anything like this to blow up into this kind of picture.”