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Today and Every Day – We Honor Veterans

by Todd Steinbrecher, US Navy Veteran, Director of Patient Support Services for Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care

Have you ever wondered how many Veterans have served in the United States Armed Forces?

Over 40 million!
 
As I have reflected on this Veterans day, I’ve thought about the history and stories that Veterans have to share. November 11, 2019, is the 100th Anniversary of the end of WWI. It officially ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of 1918. This is when the Armistice with Germany officially went into effect. In 1954 Armistice day was officially renamed Veterans Day in the United States and both of the terms are still interchangeable around the world today.
 

A Family History of Service

Both of my grandfathers served on active duty during WWII. My father served, as did many other relatives. My dad became terminally ill and I moved my family to Arizona to be with him. Eventually he elected to continue his journey and signed up for hospice. I was the one in the family to help Dad with his VA benefits. We would have Veterans honors at his funeral and there were a few other items of business he requested I attend to.
 
Witnessing my dad’s care on hospice and learning more about Veteran benefits at the same time, inspired me to work in the hospice community as a professional, a volunteer, and a Veterans advocate. I help work to connect our Veterans with their benefits, their recognition, and ways we may honor them.
 

A Hero on Hospice

One of the first hospice patients I ever met, let’s just call him Frank, was a search and rescue helicopter crew chief in the Marines during Vietnam. I used to visit this gentleman every week and bring him the same thing that he always asked for… a chocolate shake and a cheeseburger from Winstead’s. The first time I brought snacks to Frank’s nursing home, it felt like “sneaking” food to him. So I asked his nurse if it was ok to bring my friend these snacks. She flipped her hair, looked me in they eye, and said “Honey, that man is on hospice and he can have whatever he wants. You better get those snacks to him before the burger gets cold and the shake melts.”
 
I felt relieved and walked away with a smile. Now, I felt confident that it was safe to bring snacks to my friend. We would sit and talk while I helped him with his food. We started getting more comfortable with each other. I asked him about his military experience and his life. We would talk and talk and he shared with me some of his most intimate experiences from Vietnam. Frank shared stories that even his wife and family did not know. He volunteered this information and I felt absolutely honored that he would want to share, and that he trusted me so much to protect his stories.
 

Frank’s Veterans Benefits

As a few weeks went by, we started to discuss topics like the VA and Veterans benefits. I learned a great deal from Frank about his injuries during the war. Frank was a Bronze Star Combat Veteran. His patrol was ambushed and he lost one of his legs from just above the knee. Frank was a war hero, even though he would never admit to that.
 
 He did have some assistance from the VA. I asked him, “is there anything else you need or that I could help you with?” Frank told me, “the only thing I’m worried about is making sure my wife is going to be cared for when I’m gone.
 
Lickity split I learned very quickly that there are Veteran Service Officers that are Vets themselves who advocate for Veteran benefits. We got in touch with one and he actually came out to visit Frank, no charge, and helped him with his requests to include securing a Survivor’s Pension for his wife to make sure she was taken care of when he was no longer here.

Frank’s Journey Nears its End

Just a week or two later I was driving home from work and Frank’s nurse called me. She told me “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I am here in Frank’s room and he is actively dying. He is not responsive, but before that happened he was talking about you like he always does after you visit with him. If you want to, you can come up here and be with Frank. He told me to tell you that once we got to this point. So don’t worry either way, just know that it’s OK with Frank if you would like to sit with him now.”
 
“Well how much time does he have?” I asked. 
 
The nurse replied “We never know for sure, sweetie, but not long”
 
“Oh” I said. “Oh OK, well I uh…I…I think I am going to head that way and I will see you both shortly.”
 
Arriving a little while later, I took a few deep breaths and I walked into Frank’s room. When I arrived, the nurse met me and said to have a seat if you like. She stayed in the room with us. 

She told me it was OK to speak to Frank because even if he doesn’t say anything back, he can still hear me and it may comfort him.

Final Moments

I spoke to Frank, just to let him know I was there and his breathing calmed. After sitting with him for 15 minutes I finally said, “Frank, I know you are worried about your family. I just want you to know that I will make sure they are taken care of and have everything they need. If that’s what you’re waiting for…to make sure your family is OK…they are and will be OK. It’s OK to go if you want.”
 
Frank died a few moments later. I witnessed him take his last breath. I witnessed him share his confessions of war. I witnessed him pass over and that was that. Complete silence in the room, a peaceful silence. 
 
I told my wife that night that I wanted to do more in hospice, and on top of that, advocate for Veteran patients at end of life. 
 

We Honor Veterans

There are so many things a hospice organization can do to help Veterans. Helping them with their benefits, recognition ceremonies, and Veteran-to-Veteran volunteers. What I have learned while working in hospice and with Veterans is that there is so much help that can be given to someone near the end of their life. There is still a lot of living and lessons, and the only dying anyone does is when they take their last breath and that energy goes somewhere. It doesn’t disappear.
 
Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care is a member of We Honor Veterans, a national organization dedicated to making sure that Veterans have the care they need and respect they deserve at the end of life. It’s part of our mission to provide compassionate care to our community. There are so many choices of care and we strive to make sure Veterans receive the best care possible.
 
If you know someone who is a Veteran and on hospice, please reach out to their hospice organization or call us at 816.363.2600 and we can help. Please remember on this week of Veteran’s Day that over 40,000,000 Americans have served our country and we can honor some of them by reaching out to make sure they have everything they need. 
 
Have a blessed Veterans Day.

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