Between the time when I lost Kay and the time I began to see Noreen, I served as a patient volunteer with the local non-profit hospice organization that serves some 17 counties in the Appalachia area. Following the six-week training program for volunteers, I asked the hospice organization to allow me to focus totally on military veterans.
I explained to them that for everyone who has ever served in our nation’s armed forces, their military service is a substantial component of their life. It is a time when they were away from home, many for the first time, immersed in a culture built around honor, loyalty to their buddies and dedication to an ideal far bigger than themselves. They have met physical and mental challenges their civilian counterparts will never know. They have known that others’ lives can depend on their performance, and have felt a camaraderie unequalled anytime in their lives, before or after. They have learned to master complex and dangerous machinery and systems. Most have earned personal responsibility for the training, safety and well-being of others.
Those who have further experienced combat have voluntarily exposed themselves to dangers unimaginable to the society they have sworn to defend. They have seen selfless valor, and experienced losses that can haunt them the remainder of their lives. Many bear the scars of secrets and guilt which they have never been able to share with anyone who hasn’t “been there.”
For many veterans their military service, especially in combat, marks the high point of their entire existence, against which every situation or experience for the rest of their lives is measured and found wanting. They have faced and survived a test which their civilian counterparts can never comprehend. Every military veteran has his own story he is dying to share with someone, especially with a comrade who understands things he might never speak. Every vet, regardless of his service, wants to know that someone has heard his story, someone who can truly appreciate and validate the service and sacrifice he has made to his nation.
After much internal red tape, they finally honored my request, and I began my career as a hospice patient volunteer. During my two years as a hospice volunteer, I had a total of 24 patients that I was able to visit and get to know. Some I visited only once, because hospice had been called in too late, but others I knew for extended periods. Many had wartime experience, usually World War II but also Korea, while others had stateside peacetime service, but the common denominator for them all was that they had raised their right hand, sworn to serve their nation, and that their military service deserved to be recognized. And for me, it was an honor to be of some service to each of these military veterans,
Some of their stories are remarkable.
My first patient, call him Mr. Bob, had debilitation and dementia, with impaired speech. My purpose in visiting him was to give his caregiver wife a chance to have some time to herself. Every time I visited, he was always in his recliner in the living room. My first visit, she sat beside him so we could get to know each other a bit. The hospice paperwork had indicated that Bob was a World War II veteran. I asked about his service in the war, and his wife said he had been in the Army Air Corps in India. Trying to include him in the conversation, I turned to him and asked, “How did you like serving in India?” He looked me straight in the eye and gave me a huge raspberry.
His wife, sitting beside him and clearly embarrassed, turned to him and said, “No, dear. He asked you how you liked your time in India.” He turned to her and gave her a second defiant raspberry.
With that question now clearly resolved, I went on to learn, with her assistance, that he survived the war unscathed, earned a degree on the GI Bill at Wake Forest University, had a career as a teacher, and they had four children and nine grandchildren. I told her I would come every week the same day for about two hours, giving her a chance for shopping, getting her hair done, or any other relief from her 24-hour care-giving routine she wished.
As my weekly visits rolled on, I learned that he was a fanatical fan of his alma mater, Wake Forest, and that his favorite activity was his weekly trip to McDonald’s for French fries and chocolate ice cream.
The living room walls were covered with Wake Forest memorabilia and framed diplomas and awards he had earned.
My efforts to engage him in dialog usually were fruitless, more so because the meds he was under made him drowsy.
Usually when I arrived for a visit, his wife would immediately go back to her bedroom, stretch out on her bed and watch soap operas until it was time for me to leave.
As time wore on, Bob simply slept in his recliner more and more during my visits. I took to bringing a book or magazine while I was with him, and one day his wife gave me a book to read during my visits. It was self-published by one of the men in his unit, describing their wartime experiences in India.
As ground support troops for the Army Air Corps, they supported the supply airlift “over the hump” to Chinese troops fighting Japanese occupation.
From that I gained an appreciation of his wartime service, and realized the honor I had in serving him in his final months.
As time went on, Bob slid deeper and deeper into lethargy, until one day hospice called me to say he had passed overnight. The loss and grief I felt in losing my first patient was surprising to me, since I had known all along that it was inevitable. I told them I wanted to attend his funeral, but they strongly recommended against it. Based on their experience, they said I wasn’t part of the family circle and my presence could be disruptive or unwelcome. Instead, I wrote them a long card, highlighting things I had learned or enjoyed about Bob. Thus for me was the
completion of the hospice cycle, which was
what I had decided I wanted to do. I found enormous satisfaction from having played a beneficial role for this wartime veteran and his wife.
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One patient prominent in my mind was Mr. Jerry. He had a diagnosis of “debility,” with six months or less projected to live. He was a retired federal civil servant who had risen extremely high in the Defense Department.
Upon receiving his diagnosis, his daughter had moved him into a luxurious apartment in an assisted living compound, which was about half an hour distant from the city where she lived and had her business.
Mr. Jerry was resentful of his diagnosis, and of his daughter’s decision to put him in assisted living, and of his severely reduced mobility, and of the whole lousy hand that life had dealt him. His daughter drove over to check on him every morning before work, and every evening when she dined with him in the facility. She took off work the day I met him, to introduce us and tell me about him. He just glared at us both the entire time I was there.
So I began my weekly visits with him, but they were a complete disappointment to me. I started off by asking him about his military service, about funny things he remembered from his time in, about memorable people he recalled, but he just sat in his leather arm chair in stony silence. So I began to tell him about some of the crazy things I had seen in my military service, but no response whatsoever. For three weeks I came to visit him, and we just sat there in silence the whole time.
On my fourth weekly visit, about ten minutes in, apparently he just couldn’t stand the silence any longer. Suddenly . . .
“When I was in the Army, I did a lot of KP. In fact, I did so much KP that they gave me a special job, washing pots and pans. That was the only thing I was supposed to do – wash pots and pans. One day the mess sergeant told me to wash out several dozen big glass jars that the mess hall meat came in. I told him that was not my job, that I only washed pots and pans. He said, ‘Those jars are the same as pots and pans.” I said, ‘They are not the same. Let me show you.’”
And with a giant gesture of his arm, Mr. Jerry said, “I swept the jars off the counter and they all smashed on the floor. ‘See,” I said, ‘not pots and pans.’ They never asked me to wash anything besides pots and pans again.”
With that, he began to tell me about his Army days. Mr. Jerry served in World War II on an Army outpost in Greenland, and he said, “For some reason they made me a supply sergeant.” He told me his supply room was absolutely perfect, so beautiful that every time some visiting dignitaries or generals came through the installation, they always brought them by to marvel at the immaculate supply room. Every shelf was labeled with its contents, and everything was perfectly folded and aligned. The counters and floors shined, and the windows all sparkled. It was magnificent.
“What they never knew,” he told me with a sly grin, “is that the real supply room was two blocks over.”
From that time on, Mr. Jerry could not stop talking about his life. I really looked forward to our visits, because he told me delightful stories about his time in the service, and about his work later in the Pentagon. Every visit, he was getting stronger and more vigorous.
One day, he paused and gave me a funny look. “Want to see my M-16?” he asked. Surprised, I replied, “of course.” He directed me to a closet down the hall, where I found, in fact, an M-16, or more accurately, half of an M-16. In the early 1960s, Mr. Jerry told me, the manufacturer made six M-16s sliced vertically down the centerline, to show the Pentagon the inner workings of their marvelous weapon. And he had kept one of the six, as his souvenir.
A couple of months into my time with Mr. Jerry, his daughter wanted some medical tests run on her father, but the hospice rules would not allow it. So they decided to check him out of the hospice program, and he returned to normal life. I have no reason to believe he is not alive and well to this very day.
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We were losing these World War II heroes at an alarming rate, and I was honored at least to have played a part in serving some of them in their final days