WESTERN SPRINGS – There’s a special bond among military veterans, and for some terminally ill veterans, it’s comforting to connect with fellow servicemen or women before they pass. That’s the premise behind We Honor Veterans, a national program for hospice care, where veterans visit and honor other veterans who are receiving end-of-life care.
Kindred Hospice, which works with ill veterans in the Chicago area, adopted the program. Vera Junge, manager of volunteer services for Kindred Hospice – Chicago Southwest, said the goal of We Honor Veterans is to bring in fellow veterans who can relate to the veterans on hospice care while honoring their service.
“I’ve seen patients who are reliving their experiences or having flashbacks, and when the volunteer veterans go in and talk to them, it brings them peace at the end of their lives," Junge said.
To show their gratitude to all veterans, Kindred Hospice staff members held a pinning ceremony Oct. 9 to recognize the veterans from Western Springs VFW Post 10778. At the ceremony, four members of the Western Springs VFW – Post Cmdr. Rich Jesswein, Junior Vice Cmdr. Buddy Georgoulakis, Quartermaster Mike Winner and Adjutant Bruce Harken – were honored for their dedication to the hospice’s volunteer program.
The four volunteers visit veterans on hospice and host pinning ceremonies for them at nursing homes while decked out in their VFW uniforms and accompanied by a color guard and snare drum entrance, Junge said.
“[The four honored veterans] are always available if I need volunteers. It’s important to them because they see how much it adds [to the hospice veterans]. The vets in the facilities get so excited to connect with the volunteers,” she said. “The pinning ceremonies [for veterans on hospice] were done with hospice staff before, which is nice, but adding the [volunteer] veterans takes it to a new level.”
Jesswein, a retired Navy veteran, said he always looks forward to participating in pinning ceremonies for the hospice veterans.
“It’s a good thing to volunteer for,” said Jesswein, who plays the drum in the pinning ceremonies. “Before the pinning ceremony, I’ll go in their rooms and ask them about their service, and they can relate to me. I think the pinning ceremonies mean a lot to these guys, and to receive recognition from Kindred [on Oct. 9] means a lot to me, too.”
Winner, who recently retired from the Marine Corps, said he volunteers with Kindred simply because he’s able to.
“It makes me feel good,” he said. “It’s important to recognize those veterans. A lot of times they don’t open up [about their experiences] unless they’re talking to another veteran. It’s tough for them to talk about some stuff with people who can’t relate.”
For Georgoulakis, who is a Vietnam-era Army veteran, it’s about honoring veterans before they pass. He said it’s satisfying for him to see the smiles on the veterans’ faces when the volunteers visit.
“We try to cheer them up and make them feel important, and it really does. They like the recognition they receive during the pinning ceremonies,” he said.
Harken, a Marine Corps veteran, said that when he returned from Vietnam in 1970, his service wasn’t recognized, so it’s important to him to honor veterans’ service.
“We want to show them that people care. It makes a big difference to them. I’ve seen a lot of guys choke up when we do pinning ceremonies,” he said.