CHICAGO – The old Army cook and the injured artilleryman sat shooting the breeze at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
Nick Konz spent part of the 1960s in uniform, cooking for soldiers stationed in Germany.
Ray O’Brien came home “banged up” from the Korean War, prompting a discharge and a loss of military life that the 86-year-old would lament until the day he died.
O’Brien was suffering from vascular disease and had settled into hospice care. Still, the Libertyville, Ill., man retained his loquaciousness as he held court from his wheelchair.
“The American Legion has the best bars,” he noted. “Depends on who’s bartending,” Konz said.
The men met as part of No Veteran Dies Alone, a program that links volunteers with vets living out their final stanza in hospice care. Volunteers like Konz, a retired butcher, seek to provide solace and companionship in a veteran’s last days.
No Veteran Dies Alone is active in about one-third of Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide. It is a program fueled by volunteers like Konz.
“We’ll hold their hand, reassure them it’s OK to die and let them know that they’re not alone,” Konz said. “Somebody cares and appreciates what they did for us.”
Volunteers for the program, which began in 2013, provide a human touch when a veteran’s family and friends cannot be there for the end, said Dr. Stephen Holt, director of the Lovell health care center.
“It is an act of true selflessness to comfort a patient as they take their final breath,” Holt said. “Since we began this program, no veteran has been alone in their final moments.”
Konz gets to know patients while they are still lucid, so he can be a familiar presence when the end approaches.
“Some people are incoherent” near death, he said. “They’ll just look right through you. But I think to myself that they recognize me.”
Konz, 69, estimated that he has helped see 25 to 30 veterans out of this world.
Not every passing is easy. Konz recalled people trembling, trying to fight death, reaching and calling for people who are not there. “Every person’s death,” he said, “is just as unique as that person’s life.”
Volunteers should be comfortable dealing with death, avoid forcing religion on people and never make the visit about themselves, Konz said. “Listen,” he said. “Just listen.”
There are about 30 program volunteers, but Konz said the ranks thin when patients near the end. “A lot of people can’t deal with death,” he said, “and that’s understandable.”
The call for sailors to attend O’Brien’s final salute went out on the loudspeaker right after he died. The final salute is the last step in a veteran’s hospice stay at Lovell, a way for volunteers and staff to say goodbye.
Sailors filed into the nursing home where O’Brien’s wife and children had gathered. This time, Konz was there for the family. “A lot of times, family members need more help than the veterans,” he said.
Sailors of all ranks in their blue working uniforms formed two lines down the hall and out to the waiting ambulance. That’s a big turnout, Konz said. Sometimes there is only one sailor on hand for a final salute. Sometimes there are none.
A red, white and blue blanket covered O’Brien’s stretcher, crocheted for ceremonies like these by volunteers. Family members and staff followed the stretcher, flanked on either side by saluting sailors.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, Oh Lord,” the Rev. Leoncio Santiago prayed near the exit, where taps played.
Konz said seeing death up close helps him face the mortality shared by all. “There’s just so many,” he said. “They all got a story.”