Don't ever ask June Fremont if she was a Marine.
"Was a Marine? I am a Marine!" she'll reply.
This World War II veteran, who will turn 100 in August, is quick-witted and energetic. But because she's suffered from heart trouble, Fremont has been placed in hospice care at Woodbury Senior Living, where she resides in an apartment decorated with mementos from a long and rich life.
As a hospice patient, Fremont has a specially trained nurse assigned to her. The two took to each other immediately because of their shared military backgrounds.
When Fremont first met Joshua Bowling, she was admittedly skeptical about having a male nurse. But her skepticism melted like a snowball on the beach in Hawaii, where she served during the war.
"I've never bonded with anybody as fast as I bonded with this cutie-patootie," she said, gazing fondly at Bowling. "I get him and he gets me, because we're veterans. There's just some sort of camaraderie that you can't explain."
That's by design, said Margaret Wachholz, a spokeswoman for Woodbury Senior Living. The organization contracts for nurses with St. Croix Hospice, and it matches veterans with veterans whenever it can.
"The military look after one another," Wachholz said.
Bowling, a Maplewood resident, served as an Army medic with the 1st Cavalry Division in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I dealt with a lot of death and dying — the bad version of it," he said. During training for his registered nursing license, he was exposed to hospice care and "it felt like a calling," he said.
"If there's the ability to give someone a peaceful death rather than what I was accustomed to, I was interested in that," Bowling said.
Ole Nestad served as a medic with Bowling. The two bonded as fellow Minnesotans overseas and followed the same paths on their return, both winding up as nurses with St. Croix Hospice.
Nestad, of Annandale, said he was also deeply affected by his Army experience.
"In the Army, yeah, we're tough guys," he said. "But you were there holding your buddy's hand at the end.
"And that's what I think is important — to not be alone, to have someone there at the end."
Preparing for the end of life needn't be morbid, as five minutes spent with Fremont will prove. Wachholz said hospice is becoming an increasingly accepted part of elder care. For example, residents in hospice care at her facility can request a hospice doula to provide information and emotional support.
"We prepare for birth; look at all the books!" she said. "So what if we prepared for death the way we prepare for birth? It removes the fear."
Fremont is sharp and funny. Describing her childhood on the south side of Chicago, she said, "The farther south you go, the tougher it gets. And I'm from the last house!"
One of her wartime jobs was to write letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed in action. She always tried to find out some personal information about each soldier, adding it to the form letter to help ease the sadness of the families.
Her work brought her into contact with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, who impressed Fremont mightily.
"What a doll she was!" Fremont exclaimed. "She was so knowledgeable. If it wasn't for her, I don't know if FDR would have done as well as he did."
Another highlight was going to a nightclub in Chicago with some other female Marines to hear the Tommy Dorsey band. During a long instrumental passage, the band's young singer came down off the stage and asked Fremont to dance.
His name? Frank Sinatra.
It's no wonder Fremont, with her beloved nurse at her side, doesn't fear death.
"Who knew I would live to be 100?" she said. "Do you know how old that is? I've seen everything, done everything. I'm a product of the United States of America."
There's only one unfinished piece of business in her life, she said. She still remembers her drill instructor from Marine boot camp.
"Oh, if I ever get ahold of him," she said, raising a clenched fist.
Otherwise, she's content to live one day at a time.
"Every day I say, 'Lord, is this the day you're going to take me?' " she said. "And every night he says, 'No.' "
John Reinan • 612-673-7402