Honoring our Veterans

Genesis Hospice celebrates veterans at end of life

We Honor VeteransThe hospice patient, a veteran, hadn’t spoken for two days. His family gathered at his bedside as a Genesis Hospice volunteer brought his memories back to his military service from decades ago.

Immediately, the clock turned back to a time he was younger, healthier and serving his country. Despite two days of silence, the dying veteran rallied. His body was frail, his memories strong. Illness would soon claim his life, but he found his voice again and spoke about his military service. His family listened as their veteran told stories they had never before heard.

“No one has ever asked me for my military story,” the grateful veteran tells the Genesis Hospice volunteer, who writes it all down.

The volunteer gives him an honorary pin. “Today, we honor you for your service to our nation and thank you for the sacrifices you made and your willingness to serve your country.”

Honoring veterans in hospice

It’s one of many moving stories that Genesis Hospice staff and volunteers have experienced as part of “We Honor Veterans,” a national program of the Veterans Administration and hospice care providers. Genesis hospice patients who are veterans are celebrated in a ceremony that recognizes their service to the U.S. and honors them with an honorary pin and certificate. U.S. flags and service flags are also displayed in their homes or outside their rooms at the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf.

“The stories are as individual as our patients,” says Lori Bruning of Genesis Hospice, who helps coordinate the “We Honor Veterans” program.

“It’s not only WW II veterans who are at an age where they need hospice care. We’re also caring for more Korean and Vietnam-era veterans in hospice. Every veteran deserves our gratitude and recognition for their service.”

Many veterans in hospice have never talked much about their military service. They did their job; they came home; they went to work or college. For most, military service was a highpoint in their lives. Before their death, they may need to reconcile issues surrounding their service, particularly during wartime. With its team concept, Genesis Hospice utilizes chaplains and social workers, in addition to caregivers who help them to be physically comfortable.

“The presentation is the same for each veteran, but the ceremony often plays out quite differently,” Bruning says. “In one instance, the patient was drawing his last breath, but it was important to the family to keep the ceremony going. Some families have scrapbooks detailing their loved ones’ military service; other families are hearing their veteran’s military memories for the first time.” 

The veterans’ memories and stories provide a fascinating glimpse of our nation’s military history and remain an important memento for the family after their deaths. A few highlights from some of the veterans, now deceased, have included:

  • Elmer Ullrich was ordered to Army service after the Pearl Harbor attack and later ordered to Iwo Jima, where he served as a binocular man. His job was to spot Japan’s Kamikaze planes before they crashed into ships loaded with Air Force planes and personnel. Once he spotted enemy planes, he would signal those operating the large floodlight to enable the gunner to see the target. Little did he and his fellow servicemen stationed on Iwo Jima know that Japan had tunnels filled with enemy forces underground. On Feb. 23, 1945, the Marines raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, ending the bloodiest battle ever fought by U.S. troops in the War in the Pacific. Ullrich returned to Iowa in 1945, where he and his family successfully farmed.
  • Doris Reed, who joined the Cadet Nurse Corps in 1949, recalled how her best friend was being sent to Japan and she badly wanted to go, too. Another nurse offered to trade with her, but it wasn’t allowed. That ultimately saved her life. A plane carrying 17 Navy nurses to Japan stopped in Guam for refueling and crashed on takeoff with all 17 lives lost. Because of the Korean War, she was allowed to continue in active military service despite being married and attained the rank of Lt. J.G. She eventually was able to go to Japan when her husband was stationed there. She later worked at St. Luke’s Hospital, a predecessor of Genesis Medical Center, Davenport.
  • Gerald “Jerry” Cavanagh joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and spent time in the Pacific Theater as an air traffic controller. One of his memories was touring a now-famous PT boat. Two days later, the boat was blown out of the water and lost for a couple of days before the seriously injured crew was rescued. It was PT 109, led by Lt. John F. Kennedy, a future U.S. President. Cavanagh also narrowly escaped death in a typhoon when torrential rain collapsed a large tent on top of him and threatened to smother him. He cut his way out with a knife. Over the years, he remained active with the 13th Fighter Command Reunions, and was in spirit, if not in body, on the September 2011 Honor Flight.
  • Stephen Kerr enlisted in the Navy in 1968 and spent 15 months off the shore of Vietnam serving on several vessels. While on the USS Ticonderoga, the ship provided recovery for the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. The astronauts picked up after their return to Earth and splash-down were John Young, Thomas Mattingly and Charles Duke, Jr. Kerr attained the rank of E5, earning several commendations and awards and worked more than three decades at the Rock Island Arsenal.

One out of every four dying Americans is a veteran. By recognizing that veterans have unique needs, the “We Honor Veterans” campaign helps hospice providers guide them and their families toward a more peaceful ending.

“Veterans have done everything asked of them in their mission to serve our country, and we believe it is never too late to give them a hero’s welcome home,” Bruning concludes.

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