Final recognition for dying military vets
ASPEN – Dick Merritt spoke softly Thursday while recalling the time he and three fellow retired military veterans visited an old soldier Nov. 9 at Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale.The man was terminally ill and bedridden, so the visitors had to get down on their knees to speak to him. He was aware of their presence but really didn’t interact with them, Merritt said. At least not at first.At the end of their short stay, the visiting veterans read from a framed certificate they were leaving with him. It thanked him for his service during World War II.The recognition stirred the old solider and he exclaimed, “Holy smokes!”, according to Merritt. He was honored at the recognition. He died a few days later.The visit is a memory Merritt cherishes. He and the three other veterans are volunteers in the We Honor Veterans program being undertaken by HomeCare & Hospice of the Valley and hospices throughout the country. When veterans or their family members arrange for hospice care in their final days, they are asked if they want to participate in the program. If they do, they will get a visit from Merritt and his colleagues.It’s a chance to honor the veterans one last time, said Wendy Steckler, volunteer coordinator with HomeCare & Hospice of the Valley. Merritt said former members of the armed services sometimes don’t want to share their stories with their families. Sometimes they feel more comfortable relating their experience to other former members of the military, Steckler said. The dying veterans choose whether they want to talk about their service. No one pushes them.”It’s not about making them share every detail,” Steckler said. “If they want to share their stories, it’s one last chance to do so.”The local hospice joined the national program in March. Merritt, a retired Marine, is among the first four veteran volunteers. The other volunteers are Dan Glidden, retired from the Navy; Darryl Grob, retired from the Army; and Heinz Coordes, retired from the Air Force. They received training on how to interact with patients in hospice.On Nov. 9, two days before Veterans Day, the volunteers and Steckler put the program into action. They had plans to visit eight dying veterans in the Roaring Fork Valley. All eight had agreed in advance to the visits. The group could complete only six visits. One man wasn’t up for visitors; another was rushed to the hospital, according to Steckler.Among the six they saw was Jim Hayes, of Aspen, a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. They visited with Hayes in the living room of the home he shared for decades with his wife, Mary Eshbaugh Hayes. A fire heated the cozy room to a perfect temperature, Steckler said. Mary was nearby. Their daughter, Jess Bates, worked at the silversmith bench just off the living room. It was an ideal setting filled with love, Steckler said.At the end of a 20-minute visit, the volunteers presented Hayes with the framed certificate thanking him for his service and a special pin.”He said, ‘It’s the first time in 67 years that anybody thanked me for my years of military service,'” Merritt said.”What more can you say?” Merritt continued. “That’s a moment I’ll never forget.”Merritt and the other volunteer veterans aren’t looking for thanks for doing what they do, but moments like those with Hayes certainly make the effort special, Merritt said. Hayes died Dec. 14.Of the eight veterans who were on the visitation list Nov. 9, four have died. Most World War II veterans are in their 80s and 90s. Precise numbers are hard to find, but an average of around 700 veterans of that war are dying every day in the U.S., according to multiple sources.HomeCare & Hospice of the Valley estimated earlier this year that 7,500 veterans of all eras live in the Roaring Fork, Crystal, Eagle and Colorado river valleys. That’s an area that stretches from Aspen to Battlement Mesa to Vail.Merritt, who is immersed in various veterans programs in Pitkin County, said nearly all World War II veterans in this area have died or have moved to warmer climates.”Basically they’re all gone now,” he said. But plenty more veterans from different eras follow.The plan is always to make a special day of visits to ailing retirees from the military around Veterans Day. However, the veteran volunteers are ready to offer aid and comfort whenever needed.The program needs additional veteran volunteers. The opening training session is from 9 to 11 a.m. Jan. 12. Anyone interested can contact Steckler at 970-279-5503.Merritt said he’s already found volunteering a rewarding experience.”We’re reaching out to these veterans,” Merritt said. “These people are lonely. I don’t care how many family members and other people they have around them.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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