- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2005

This is a reflection on life in the hospice unit of a Veterans Administration Medical Center where I work as a volunteer. I am often asked by friends and family about how the veterans who have found their way here to their final beds are treated by the nation they served, what the remaining days of their lives are like in the sadness of imminent passing.

Not all here were at the level of valor of a Medal of Honor winner, nor holders of the Combat Infantry Badge; nor did all here proudly serve with the Airborne or Navy Seals or Rangers or other elite units. But all do have one thing in common — by call or by choice, they carried the colors.

Nary a one regarded himself or herself as “too educated to fight” or expressed a “loathing” for the military (recent contemporary political thought). And it was by that service, before they ever needed the helping hands and care they now know, that they earned this place of honor. In the final days, they come once again to be among their memories, with their band of military brothers, back with family.

It is a place where one is reminded often of a concept that once prevailed in America: the great melting pot. Neither rank nor race nor gender nor wealth nor celebrity status is determinative. The resident in each bed is special; each patient’s daily needs are carefully monitored and addressed. Often those needs are physical, immediate care. At other times it is simply the touch of a human hand, or giving one’s undivided attention at bedside, just to listen as memories of service time and post-service time seem determined to surface one last time and be heard.

In the hospice unit there are no wounded from Iraq or Afghanistan; those currently in the brotherhood of pain are being treated with equal honor in the post-surgery units of VA medical centers across the country. Those here, rather, are the warriors from wars and service past. The strong legs that once enabled them to climb a precipitous cliff under full pack at night, or endure a scorching trek through desert or jungle, or endure the terror of the unknown in combat or to supply those who were out on the point no longer respond. Being at bedside often is difficult, at other times tenderly rewarding, as they, or their families, speak about their lives:

• Jim was a farmhand from Tennessee who served in an artillery unit in Germany. He has relatives across the state line in Oregon but he never gets visitors. He is among family here.

• Ann Marie was a WAC. She has moments of lucidity, but much of the time her mind is taken with memories now. When I visit, she thinks I am her boyfriend, Joe: “Hello, Joe. Hold my hand, Joe. Where shall we go when I leave here, Joe?” I hold her hand and gently caress it and talk softly with her. While I am with her, I am Joe.

• John is a survivor of the Bataan Death March of World War II, regarded by many as the icon for man’s brutality on man in war. He has many visits from a large, loving family. At times I am privileged to sit beside to provide a respite to visiting family members. It is hard to see this once incredibly courageous, strong man now struggling for life as he struggled during his hard captivity so long ago. He and his fellow warriors were cut off from supplies of food, medicine and ammunition after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

They were, of necessity, abandoned by the severely crippled military because of the attack. Their valiant resistance gave the eagle the precious time to sharpen its claws and in just six months America went on the offensive and began to roll back the perimeter of the Japanese advance. They held the line while chanting their defiance: “No Mama… No Papa… No Uncle Sam!… We’re the Battling Bastards of Bataan!”

n Jim was a black enlisted man, Navy. He could no longer talk when I met him, but his ever-present warm smile made his talk unnecessary. I talked and Jim nodded. He apparently never received visitors, so it was especially devastating when I went to visit one day and learned that Jim had crossed over since my last visit. Had he died alone? In some fit of concern I raced for an answer. It was a relief to learn that somehow, inexplicably, two of Jim’s friends had found him on Jim’s final day; they were at his side at passage.

Joy in the midst of sadness when angels come to visit. Now, if friends are not near, and staff is too busy with others to ensure that someone is at bedside when the end is near, a volunteer has made himself available around the clock, on call, to ensure that none of the family dies alone — ever.

When passage comes, a ceremony is in place. A red-white-blue “passage quilt” is placed over the deceased. A small flag is placed at the door to indicate a recent departure. The quilt remains in place until the deceased is escorted out of the unit according to family desires. The quilt then is returned to the bed where it was, and there remains, until the bed is needed for another American veteran.

Even those who will never be present in the hospice unit are recognized and honored. Just down the corridor from the hospice unit is the coffee shop. Those who are able gather each morning at 1000 hours to visit with each other. Just inside the door is a small round table, with dinner setting for one. This is the POW/MIA table. It is set for one to symbolize all who are missing from the ranks.

There is yet one final place of honor, just down the corridor from the coffee shop. I am moved to incredulity whenever I pass through what I call this “Hall of Heroes.” On the wall are the photos and a brief write-up of kids who lived as adults, who volunteered to serve even though underage.

• Betty was just 14 when she enlisted in the WACs in WWII; she was uncovered one day when she went for an alteration on her uniform, by her own aunt.

• Calvin Graham, at 12, was the youngest combat veteran of World War II. He was on the USS DAKOTA at Guadalcanal, earning the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Cal died in his bed at home, at age 62. Ricky Schroeder played the man/boy in “Too Young The Hero.”

My mind often goes to a tender burial ceremony in Arlington Cemetery, where the first of the fallen in Afghanistan was laid to rest. MichaelSpannalways wanted to be a Marine. He served with great pride, and subsequently became an operative with the CIA. He was back in the field with the brothers when he died in a prison uprising. At the ceremony, his wife, with her two small children at her side, said some tender words about her fallen hero. Her final words, as the military honorguardloweredMichael Spann into his earned place of honor, were directly to him: “Semper Fi, my love.” Or was she speaking for him to a grieving nation?

Honor to one is solace for all. As each of the hospice veterans personally moves toward the imminent front of the line to the inexorable passage that awaits us all, one thing is assured: Honor. Honor earned. Honor due. Honor given 24/7, by a grateful nation.

Bill Burke is a free-lance writer who has spent many years in hospice work. He also worked with the State Department and the CIA, and with an order of Catholic priests in an AIDS hospice in Thailand. Now retired, he is working as a volunteer in several Veterans Administration hospitals in Oregon and Washington to support the troops in war.

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