By Sr. Georgeann Roudebush
It may surprise you to learn that 25% of those who die every year in the United States are veterans.
I have family members who have served as well as relatives currently serving, and I want them to have the best quality care possible. Through the healthcare we provide, we can honor our veterans by building a trusting relationship, actively listening to their concerns, respecting their stories, and providing veteran-focused care.
Healing their wounds begins and continues as veterans feel free to talk about their experiences. Some veterans may have special emotional needs, and their feelings can grow stronger as they near the end of life. Common themes include forgiveness, complicated grief, guilt and/or shame, the reemergence of post-traumatic stress disorder, and moral regret.
Members of the armed forces are trained to take orders and work together as a team. Military culture promotes stoicism, and veterans may avoid showing emotions, especially those that indicate weakness. While each veteran’s individual experience is unique, there are common challenges they may share.
Many combat veterans experience PTSD. While it is normal to react to trauma with fear and shock, people with PTSD experience symptoms weeks, months, sometimes years after the initial event. PTSD is common in prisoners of war, who may feel the effects of their experience on their emotional and physical health long after they come home. It is important to be aware that serious illness can trigger emotions and memories from past trauma. This is especially true for those at end of life.
Veterans who have seen action may have been wounded in combat or been subjected to extreme weather or disease. Some may have been exposed to chemical or biological weapons or radiation on duty. Whether in a combat zone or on a military base, veterans may have been exposed to occupational hazards such as working with toxins, loud noises or heavy machinery which can cause health-related issues.
While some members of the military may have never seen active combat, it is important for them to be recognized for their service. No matter the role they played, all servicemen and servicewomen deserve our respect.
To provide the best care possible, SSM Health at Home has implemented We Honor Veterans, a pioneering campaign developed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program helps healthcare providers better care for patients with military service by recognizing the challenges they may be facing.
As part of We Honor Veterans, partner organizations assess their ability to serve veterans and integrate best practices for providing quality care to veteran patients. Participating agencies educate staff and volunteers about each war and the unique experiences and complications felt by those who served in them. This can be especially important for veterans who experienced combat service or trauma which can resurface during a serious illness.
In addition to the education and training that We Honor Veterans provides, there are several things we can do as spiritual care providers to engage with veteran patients.
Saying or writing “thank you” can mean a lot.
Take time to look at pictures, letters and other mementos they may have saved.
Military awards and medals are symbols of a veteran’s service and are usually displayed. Inquire about them to start a conversation. Consider holding a pinning ceremony where family and friends gather to celebrate their loved one’s service as a pin and certificate are presented.
Start a veteran-to-veteran volunteer program. Military veterans are part of a distinct culture with their own common language and experience. Many hospice patients wish to be connected to volunteers who share their experiences.
Does your veteran patient have a bucket list of items they would like to accomplish? Perhaps you can work with caregivers and community resources to help make their wishes reality. One way to help veterans fulfill a dream is to sign them up for an Honor Flight. The group has chapters across the country that help fly veterans to Washington, DC, to visit the memorials that have been built in their honor.
A generation of World War II and Korean veterans are now facing end-of-life care decisions, and Vietnam War veterans are not far behind. In years to come, those who have served in the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom will need care as well.
We owe all our veterans our respect and thanks for defending our freedom. As spiritual care providers, it is essential to be motivated by love and to have a passion for the care we provide. Our passion for our work is vital as we bring the healing power of Jesus to those we serve.
Sr. Georgeann Roudebush is spiritual and grief counselor for SSM Health At Home in Madison, WI.