By Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care
About 40 veterans turned out for our recent National Vietnam War Veterans Day celebration at the Braintree Town Hall. To meet these vets was awe-inspiring but also, at times, heartbreaking.
Every year, we at Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care have the honor of providing hospice care for hundreds of veterans, and we have developed a specialized program to guide them through end-of-life care. We have found Vietnam vets to be a special, often emotionally complicated, group. Finding a way to die in peace can be difficult, particularly for those who have gone to war. Many have never talked about the experiences they encountered during their time in service, but at the end of life find it necessary and healing to do.
About 200 veterans a year engage with our specialized veterans’ hospice care. Most are Vietnam veterans. We also care for patients who served during the wars in the Gulf, Korea, and Afghanistan. On occasion, we still care for a World War II veteran or two, although that is becoming rarer.
Veterans face unique end-of-life issues. Most veterans dying today served in the Vietnam War, and their experiences differ from previous generations and those who served in other wars. Vietnam vets often returned home from war less recognized, appreciated, and honored than other veterans.
Our March Braintree Town Hall event, titled “Welcome Home Vietnam Vets,” was meant to be the opposite.
“The veterans were very appreciative,” said Janela S., Old Colony Hospice’s volunteer program manager. “It was just a moment to recognize them. Some said, ‘I was spit on,’ ‘Rocks were thrown at me,’ ‘I try never to mention my service.’ Some felt like they had never really been welcomed home. They kept saying thank you.”
March 29 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day in honor of the men and women who served during the longest conflict in United States history. It is a way to say specifically to Vietnam vets that we appreciate their sacrifice.
They were called to serve, and they did. Now, especially as they age, it is our turn to serve them.
About 680,000 veterans die each year, and there is a growing recognition that they need special hospice care that considers their military experience.
In collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, OCH is part of a “We Honor Veterans” program specific to veterans and their unique needs at the end of their lives. Our program has been awarded five stars, the highest level. This includes medical care but also a host of other services that address companionship, mental health, pain treatments, and spiritual care. We organize pinning services and gatherings to honor their service and help them connect with other veterans. We have a special corps of volunteer veterans who come to visit veterans in hospice.
Just as their lives may have been complicated by war and its aftermath, veterans also often have conflicted and agitated feelings at the end of life. Many have never talked about the wars they were in but now want to have those conversations. They may be struggling with long-bottled emotions and difficult resolutions, such as forgiving their enemies or forgiving themselves before they die. Many have seen combat missions and been in the midst of violence. Some suffer from flashbacks and nightmares. Others battle health conditions, including substance abuse.
At the National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we recognized each veteran who attended, reading their names in recognition of their service. It seemed to bring many of them a sense of peace and comfort.
As I said at the event, recognizing their service is never too late. And it is never enough.
Toni L. Eaton, RN, BSN, MS, is the President & CEO of Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care of West Bridgewater, a dynamic non-profit hospice serving more than 55 communities south of Boston. OCH also runs the Dr. Ruth McLain Hospice Home in Braintree. A native and resident of the South Shore, Toni brings her compassion and experience as a nurse, veteran, and community leader to her insightful columns for South Shore Senior News. She is also the founder of Sunny Paws Dog Rescue. Several groups have honored her leadership, including the South Shore Women’s Business Network. She currently sits on the board of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts. For more information, call (781) 341-4145 or visit Old Colony Hospice & Palliative Care at www.oldcolonyhospice.org