SHELLI Burton has developed a new habit during the past few years.
“Whenever I happen to be somewhere and encounter older gentlemen wearing the kind of baseball cap often worn by military veterans, I’ll walk up and thank them for their service,” said the Columbus woman, who is special projects coordinator on the staff of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. “I always get the same reaction, a mixture of surprise and humility. Almost always they’ll thank me but go on to say that they didn’t do anything.”
Shelli knows a pretty good rejoinder to that one, a remark often used by Mark Pillar, a retired two-star Air Force general who flew combat missions over Vietnam. “Mark would just shake his head and remind the veteran that he signed on the line to give his life for his country.”
Shelli’s come to this added appreciation of those who have served through a program adopted by the local hospice organization for its patients who are military veterans. It has a name that pretty much sums it up, Veteran to Veteran.
Shelli, Our Hospice Director Laura Hurt and Suzie Singer, director of planning and marketing, will explain the program to a special audience Nov. 7 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Taylorsville. The occasion will be the annual Honoring Veterans banquet. Their message should resonate with the group, a number of whom are part of the dwindling World War II generation.
The Veteran to Veteran program consists of two major elements. One, an often emotional recognition of an individual’s service, involves the presentation of a service pin to a hospice patient. It’s called a pinning ceremony, and it has a special meaning for the recipient. The one doing the pinning is a fellow veteran.
Last year, 175 hospice patients received the pin, either in their homes in Our Hospice’s 15-county area or at the inpatient facility on 17th Street. Without fail, each of the presentations has been emotional.
Shelli’s been a witness to most of them and can testify to the feelings evoked through such a simple ceremony. It’s emotional all around, for the presenter, for the patient and especially for the family. It’s also revealing.
“I’ve been to several at which the patient has shared experiences with a fellow veteran,” Shelli said. “Many times his family has told me that they had heard those stories for the first time because he had never shared with them what he had gone through during the war. I think that learning those stories helped them understand and appreciate their loved one all the more.”
And the event also helps to bring families even closer.
“There was one instance in which the ceremony took place in the inpatient facility,” Shelli said. “His whole family had gathered in his room, including a number of his children who had not been together for several years. He was alert throughout and could understand what was happening. He died shortly thereafter, but the family sent us a beautiful note, especially expressing a gratitude that they had all been able to be together that one last time.”
The ceremony is not taken lightly by those charged with pinning the medal on the veteran. Currently there are 11 veterans who give up their time to salute a fellow veteran. Since hospice serves a 15-county region, some ceremonies involve considerable travel.
It’s a democratic mix: Three or four of the veterans are retired officers, the rest enlisted personnel. Each wears his military uniform to the event, although that practice might require some adjustments.
“One of our volunteers outgrew his dress jacket,” Shelli said. “That doesn’t stop him. He just wears his uniform shirt and has switched the rack of medals that had been on the breast of his jacket to his shirt.”
The hospice staff is hoping to build on the second aspect of the Veteran to Veteran program, which pairs veterans on an ongoing basis with patients who have served.
“Right now we only have two volunteers who are veterans,” Shelli said. “That role requires a considerable amount of training, and a lot of our veterans are still working and don’t have the time to dedicate to that process.”
The staff hopes to increase that number, especially because of the special needs of patients who have served in the military.
“We’ve found that there are distinct differences in the veteran population, even among those who served in combat situations,” Shelli said. “World War II veterans often look at things differently than those who served during Vietnam, for instance. We deal with a number of individuals who are still coping with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorders).”
Ironically, there is one common theme that seems to run through the older veterans, especially the ones Shelli has encountered through hospice.
“We frequently hear from veterans that they were never thanked for their service, even those from World War II,” Shelli said. “That’s surprising about the World War II vets (who are identified as the ‘Greatest Generation’), but you have to consider that when the war ended for most of them, they simply came home and immediately went back to work.”
That’s why events like the Honoring Veterans dinner are so important. Attendance is not and should not be limited to those who have served. It’s really for those who have been served by these individuals so that, like Shelli, they can say thank you to those who signed on the bottom line.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].
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WHAT: Honoring Veterans Dinner.
WHERE: Hilton Garden Inn, Taylorsville.
WHEN: Nov. 7. Reception will begin at 5 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. and the program at approximately 6:30 p.m.
PROGRAM: A presentation about the Veteran to Veteran programs at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana and presentation of the annual Patriot Awards.
PRICE: Dinner tickets will be $30 per person.
RESERVATIONS: Places at the banquet may be reserved by sending a check in the required amount to: Honoring Veterans, P.O. Box 2171, Columbus, IN 47202-2171. Tickets will not be issued as guests need only to identify themselves at the registration table the night of the event.