A salute of honor to hospice veterans

American Legion Family members of Post 168 in Pana, Ill., are paying respect to fellow veterans in hospice care during their final days, even hours. The Legion Family members are part of the Quad County Hospice “No Veteran Will Die Alone” program that was initiated less than a year ago to honor a hospice veteran’s military service and sacrifice.

Through the program, veterans visit other veterans in hospice care either at home, a nursing facility or hospital and conduct a special pinning and award presentation ceremony. The No Veteran Will Die Alone program serves four counties and consists of 13 volunteers, with six of them from Legion Family Post 168 as well as Shelbyville Post 81, Nokomis Post 94 and Oconee Post 317.

“We are there to honor God, country and the warrior for his or her service,” said Post 168 Chaplain Jack Moss. “The veterans really get choked up. We always tell them what an honor and privilege it is for us to come and do this pinning ceremony for them.”

The ceremony begins with patriotic, gospel or other types of music performed by a volunteer music therapist on guitar or violin. Then the program volunteers march into the patient’s room carrying the American flag, as well as the veteran’s military branch of service flag. Moss offers a special prayer and then the pin is placed on the veteran. The pin is an American flag with the word “Veteran” and a service branch pin is attached.

“Some of the veterans say, ‘I don’t really deserve this medal; I wasn’t in action,’” Moss said. “But we tell them, ‘If you served one day for your country then you deserve to be honored.’ You can really see the emotion in their eyes and in their face. They are touched by that pinning, and we are too.”

The military branch pins are donated by the local military recruiting offices thanks to Post 168 Senior Vice Commander Mickey Clemons explaining the program and asking for support. “We really go the extra mile for the hospice veterans,” Clemons said. “We try to honor them the best we can for what they’ve done for us.”

Veterans also receive other items featuring their branch of service. These include a hand-made red, white and blue tie blanket and pillow made by volunteer Marilyn Ohmes, whose World War II father was a member of Post 94; a custom-made cake by a local bakery; and a laminated certificate. The certificate reads, “We pay special tribute to you, for your military service to America and for advancing the universal hope of freedom and liberty for all.”

Sons of The American Legion Squadron 168 member Earl Baker said many times the families never knew how important it was for their loved one to receive this honor because their military service was never shared. Once the program volunteers introduce themselves and their branch of service, the patient will often reminisce about his or her time in service.

“We had one veteran introduce to us his great-grandchildren; he called them up one by one,” Baker said. “That was very emotional for me. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.”

The five- to 20-minute ceremony ends with a proper salute. Clemons said oftentimes before he can even call the group to attention to present arms, the patient is saluting. “These ceremonies are very emotional for us as well as for the families,” he said.

The No Veteran Will Die Alone program was inspired by a similar program at a VA hospital in Chicago. “We thought this would be a wonderful benefit for our Quad County Hospice program because there are so many veterans in our area,” said Carol Chandler, Quad County director with Pana Community Hospital. “This has really brought together kind of a cohesive for our hospice patient that is a veteran and our very veterans that live in the community. It’s been the glue, if you will, to bring that together and that honor is happening because our veterans understand that hospice person that served. It’s been an amazing privilege for us to have this program in this community.”

Quad County Volunteer Coordinator Rachael Flesch-Springate spoke with Post 168 members and the local VFW about the program for their support. She is in contact with the families of the hospice veteran and offers the No Veteran Will Die Alone program to them. If accepted, she contacts Clemons to coordinate the ceremony and number of volunteers in attendance. She hopes other Legion Family members will see the benefits of this program and reach out to their local hospice coordinator to “help veterans that are going through this transition in their life,” she said. “To see the connection between veterans to veterans is amazing. It really is. It gives them a bond that they’ve always had. I believe it’s rewarding for everyone.”

After the patient passes, Clemons said their services to the family do not end. Post 168’s honor guard has provided military services at funerals, and they follow up with bereavement visits. “I just saw the daughter of the very first recipient of our program yesterday at the grocery store and we hugged. Once they pass we don’t forget the families,” Clemons said.

Baker said overall the program “is an emotional time. When we sit back as a group, we discuss what we saw, what we can do to make things better. It’s all about the veteran.”