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Columns: Pinning ceremony shows hospice vets that people care


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Jim Thayer said that he got cold chills when a two-star general pinned a service medallion to his shirt at his Hope area home.

Elisha Elkins barely had enough strength to sit up straight in a chair at his Greensburg home but was still able to snap off a return salute to an Air Force lieutenant colonel.

William Blanton arranged to meet an Air Force master sergeant in his dress uniform and rose to shake his hand at the end of another pinning ceremony.

The three men, united in their military history, have one other thing in common. All are hospice patients being cared for by staff members of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. They are among 47 veterans under hospice care in the past three months who have received veterans service flag pins. Twenty-three of those patients have since died.

The ceremonies, usually conducted in the homes of the hospice patients/veterans are deeply emotional. Thayer is not the only one who got cold chills. So have several of those who pinned their fellow veterans.

“We’re there to honor them,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Pillar, the two-star who pinned the crossed flags medallion on Thayer’s shirt. “Anything we can do to make them know that their service is appreciated, we’re going to do it.”

The ceremonies are an outgrowth of an initiative by the hospice organization to reach out to veterans in the community, particularly those who are hospice patients.

The mathematics in this instance are especially compelling. According to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 2.4 million deaths recorded in the United States each year, approximately 680,000 are military veterans.

Recently Our Hospice of South Central Indiana joined a national “We Honor Veterans” initiative.

“Those national percentages of veterans deaths relating to overall deaths correspond with our local statistics,” said Shelli Burton of the Our Hospice staff. “Approximately 25 percent of our clients are veterans.”

There are practical aspects to the “We Honor Veterans” initiative. For instance, staff at Our Hospice have implemented a military history checklist in which patients and/or their families provide answers about military service. A significant number of veterans are not enrolled in VA Health and are not aware of end-of-life benefits and services that are available to them.

The Our Hospice staff also has received specific training on the services and benefits that are available to veterans beyond the end-of-life programs.

The veterans are not the only beneficiaries of these services, especially the pinning ceremonies.

“One thing that has struck me at the ceremonies in which I’ve been involved is how this affects the families of the veterans,” Pillar said. “They’re so grateful that their loved one is being acknowledged.”

Burton thinks the experience is also a learning one for the families. “Some of these families even find out things about their loved one’s service through these ceremonies,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they can say things to a fellow veteran that they couldn’t say to anyone else.”

Sometimes the emotion of the ceremony is too much for some veterans.

“One gentleman said that he didn’t want a ceremony,” Burton said. “He was afraid that he would cry in front of another veteran.”

Then there are those who don’t think their service was all that special.

“I hear a lot from veterans who didn’t serve in time of war, or if they did, it was in some sort of support role,” Pillar said. “I always shake my head when I hear that. Somebody tells me that he was ‘only’ a supply clerk, as if that didn’t matter, and I tell them that a lot of people depended on their doing the job they did.”

Thayer is one of those who didn’t see combat but was still appreciated.

“I went into the Air Force in 1952, but I didn’t go to Korea,” he said. “Actually I was shipped to North Africa.”

The home he and Shirley have shared in their 61 years of married life was crowded with proud family members when Pillar affixed the flags to his shirt. “It was truly awesome,” he said, “especially because so many people were there. I really love company.”

In some ways the pinning ceremony is a duty for those who are asked to make the awards, usually in a full dress uniform that still fits them, but presenters like Pillar look upon it in another way.

“It’s a way to thank these men and women while they’re still with us,” he said. “Their families know they’re appreciated, but it’s important that they know it as well.”

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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