Sometimes it takes one to know one.
In the case of military veterans, other veterans understand the unique experiences and challenges of those who have served our country in a way others cannot. The volunteers of Sharp HospiceCare’s We Honor Veterans program recognize this and have dedicated time to honoring fellow servicemen and women in the twilight years of their lives.
The We Honor Veterans program, a partnership with the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the Department of Veterans Affairs, provides hospice care staff and volunteers with training, education and resources to help improve care for veterans, as well as recognize the important contributions they have made through their military service.
Why they do it
When asked why they do it, We Honor Veterans volunteers offered reasons as varied as dedication to the military service branches they represent, staying active in the community and honoring loved ones who have passed.
“I became a volunteer for my sanity and to honor my wife of 57 years,” says George Bartz, a retired heavy duty equipment mechanic with the U.S. Army. George has been a volunteer since the program began at Sharp HospiceCare in 2014.
“My wife died in 2012 and Sharp HospiceCare took care of her in the end,” George says. “After a period of grief, I went in and submitted my application to volunteer.”
Nancy Jackson, a retired nurse who served with the U.S. Army and at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, learned of the We Honor Veterans program while working as a registered nurse for Sharp HealthCare.
“I found that as an employee and as a volunteer, The Sharp Experience prevails,” says Nancy. “It is more of a ministry for me — combining prayer, Healing Touch, mindfulness and the human connection.”
A special ceremony for special veterans
The main role of volunteers is to preside over pinning ceremonies for military veteran hospice patients. The ceremonies are arranged with the help of Sharp HospiceCare volunteer coordinators Denise Kelly and Brenda Conchas. Both work together to schedule the ceremonies and arrange the recipient packages.
The ceremonies take place in patients’ homes, Sharp HospiceCare residences and other venues throughout San Diego County. During the ceremony, a patient receives a certificate, small American flag, branch flag and pin. Afterward, the volunteers enjoy conversing and getting to know the patient.
“The real joy for me is at the end of the ceremony when I give my personal thank you to the veteran. I get recognition from the vet that they understand and appreciate the effort. Many times I have had nonresponsive patients squeeze my hand as a way to say, ‘Thank you,’” says George.
Making connections that touch the heart
The volunteers agree that each ceremony for a fellow veteran on hospice is special. And there are many special moments.
“Before one pinning ceremony, I asked the vet about his job in the military and he shared that he worked on jet engines,” recalls volunteer and retired U.S. Navy first-class petty officer Albert Francis.
“So being in aviation myself, we started swapping stories back and forth, and soon he became silent and started to cry softly,” says Albert. “His daughter asked if they were tears of sadness or tears of joy. He said tears of joy and good memories. I drove home that night with so many things running through my mind. What a great venue for being present and available to a fellow vet.”
Sometimes the connection a volunteer has with the patient remains well after the ceremony.
“During a pinning ceremony, I remember the veteran shared his experience in the military,” says Steve Gilmore, a retired U.S. Navy captain. “We also talked about his brother who was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.”
That winter, Steve was in Arlington, Virginia as part of Wreaths Across America Day. He laid a wreath at the grave of the veteran’s brother and sent a photo to him. Although, it was beyond his duty as a We Honor Veterans volunteer, Steve felt compelled to do this act of kindness for his fellow veteran.
“At this point in his life, when he was dying, it was so touching to him that someone cared about his and his brother’s service,” says Steve. “And for him to see his brother’s grave site, it was a special moment in his life.”
To date, Sharp HospiceCare’s We Honor Veterans volunteers have presided over more than 550 pinning ceremonies.
“I really enjoy the program,” says Albert. “Every day someone faces choices about life and death, and there are other difficult choices that have to be made as well. Knowing there is an organization that values one’s military service and is available at a critical time is truly comforting in many ways for the vet and their families, today and beyond.”