As Spiritual Care Coordinator at Wings of Hope Hospice, I often lead “We Honor Vets” pinning ceremonies to honor military veterans at long-term care facilities. Along with patriotic music, readings and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, we present a framed certificate of honor and a pin to each resident veteran.
A D-DAY VETERAN REACHES OUT
After one such ceremony on Veteran’s Day 2016, a 94-year-old man I’ll call Frank rolled up to me in his wheelchair to say he would like his name recognized as having served with the Combat Engineers in Normandy, France on D-Day. He was kind and gracious even though he had evidently been overlooked by the nursing facility activity director when she made up her list of resident veterans.
Later, I found out the rest of the story. This man had not been inadvertently left out by the activity director. He had, over the years, declined recognition for his military service… Until Wings of Hope presented certificates and pins in the facility where he lived. This ceremony had prompted him to come to terms with the horror he had witnessed on Normandy’s beach and have his name honored publicly. Frank said he didn’t know how much longer he had to live but that he’d like to have a certificate and pin of recognition.
THE SAPPER’S CHALLENGE
As we talked, Frank explained his military occupational specialty as a Combat Engineer – also known as a “Sapper.” A Sapper is a soldier specialist who performs a variety of construction and demolition tasks under combat conditions. The Sapper’s goals involve facilitating movement and support of friendly forces while impeding those of the enemy.
THE SAPPERS’ SACRIFICE ON D-DAY
While Frank was describing his work, I remembered Tom Brokaw’s description of the Sappers’ sacrifice in Normandy on D-Day in his book, The Greatest Generation. “On June 6, 1944, American soldiers, among the allied forces, landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. They answered the call to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. Today, the nearby cemetery contains 9,386 white marble headstones in long, even lines across the manicured fields of dark green, each stone marking the death of a brave young American.”
Others were terribly wounded. Brokaw interviewed one soldier in 1984 at the beach on which he had fought 40 years earlier. The soldier pointed to a low-lying bluff leading to higher ground. He said, “That hillside was loaded with mines, and a unit of Sappers had gone first to find where the mines were. A number of those guys were lying on the hillside, their legs shattered by the explosions. They’d shot themselves up with morphine and were telling other soldiers where it was now safe to step. They were about 25 yards apart, calmly telling us how to get up the hill. They were human markers.” It was savage injury and death these men endured. But that day was actually the beginning of the end for the forces of evil led by Adolph Hitler. At the cost of tremendous sacrifice, D-Day was a victory day.
A SAPPER AT LONG LAST IS HONORED
I don’t know about you, but the sacrifice of all soldiers calls forth a deep sense of gratitude inside my soul because of the cost, yes. But also, in a sense, the victory they won gave me the higher ground of liberty. I want to honor our soldiers whenever I have opportunity.
After our Wings of Hope Medical Records Coordinator Deb McCormick printed up a special certificate for Frank, I drove to his facility. When I entered the facility, a nurse greeted me at the front desk. When she learned what I had come for, she wept. As we walked toward the cafeteria where Frank was having supper, the nurse explained that her husband had received a certificate and pin when we had done a similar ceremony at a different facility in the same city a few months prior. She said her husband was a Vietnam veteran who, from the time of his service until the day we honored him, had nightmares related to war. He would call out loudly in a sweat-soaked panic and would wake up in bed on his knees, holding an imaginary rifle in his hands. In his mind, he was shooting the enemy.
After decades of this torment, he was presented a certificate and pin from Wings of Hope Hospice nurse Duane DeHuff validating and honoring his service. And on that very day, his panic attacks and nightmares ceased. There was something about having his experience recognized and validated in a ceremony that brought him release.
Now, as I walked down the hallway with his wife, she was eager to see another man receive the honor her man had received earlier. We walked into the center of the dining area. I knelt by Frank who had just finished his supper. The room quieted like a dining room does when an unfamiliar man walks in wearing a suit and tie with certificate in hand. Most of the residents looked on curiously.
TEARS AND APPLAUSE
Frank smiled in recognition when he saw me. With the nurse wiping tears of joy from her cheeks, I said, “Frank, I have come with a certificate of honor to recognize your heroism and thank you for your service to the marching effort of freedom and liberty for all. Your work as Combat Engineer in France during WWII, along with your fellow Sappers, helped make this world a much better place.”
I then took the pin out of my pocket and asked if I could place it on the front of his shirt. He humbly agreed. And his face lit up in an ear-to-ear grin as that teary nurse began the applause and the assembled residents and staff joined in.
What does hospice do? One of the things hospice staff members do is recognize the significance and contribution of people’s lives. In this case, both soldiers evidently experienced peace in being publicly honored.
Author: Greg Carlson, Spiritual Care Coordinator