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Fellow vets find aid from 'a kindred spirit'

Veda Showers, 84, often gets lost in time. But she finds herself on familiar ground when Debbie Ganci comes through the door.

Both Showers and Ganci are military veterans and women of faith. Showers has congestive heart failure, diabetes, and pulmonary issues; Ganci is a pastoral counselor with Holy Redeemer Homecare and Hospice in Runnemede.

They've been meeting biweekly for two years at Showers' Mullica Hill home.

"Originally, Veda declined a visit. But when she heard I was military, that was my foot in the door," says Ganci, 55, a Presbyterian minister and mother of two.

Ganci's specialty is helping veterans and their families cope with terminal illness -- and prepare for its inevitable conclusion. Veterans make up about half of her 35-person caseload.

"It's something that was in me since I was a child," says Ganci, who grew up in Vineland and lives in Millville. "I used to go to the Veterans Home in Vineland and read to the Gold Star mothers."

She served for three years in the Army in the late 1970s and was trained as an IV and pharmacy technician. She ran a troop clinic while stationed in Germany. After the service, she taught high school math and science for five years at the Fairton Christian Academy in Cumberland County.

A friendly, no-nonsense woman, Ganci graduated in 2008 from the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. It was there, while ministering to young combat veterans who had served in Iraq, that she discovered her latest calling. She describes it as "giving veterans a chance to explain what it was like for them."

At Holy Redeemer, where Ganci has worked for five years, her veterans range in age from their mid-60s to their 90s and typically reside in Gloucester, Cumberland, or Salem Counties.

Most of them served in the Vietnam era, although she has assisted World War II and Korean War veterans as well. She also sees two female residents of the Veterans Home in Vineland.

"When they know you're a kindred spirit, they're more free to talk about what they saw, stuff they want to let go of, before they go home," Ganci says. "Some have asked me flat out, 'Is it possible to be forgiven for an act of war?' "

In those cases, Ganci works to ascertain the individual's spiritual beliefs and then helps the person reconcile those with the demands of duty.

"A lot of times they need to know that I'm somebody who can hear and understand [them] from the same point of view, and allow them to absolve themselves," she says. "My Vietnam vets are the toughest ones, because what they did wasn't recognized."

One man, now deceased, told her he wished he had avoided the draft and "didn't like what he had done" in Vietnam.

"He was able to accept that what he had done was a service to his country," Ganci says. "I ended up doing his funeral, and he had full military honors."

Veda Showers, who was a Navy payroll clerk in Charleston, S.C., in the early 1950s, has mainly pleasant memories of the military.

"When we were growing up she spoke a lot about the service -- the Navy this, the Navy that," says her eldest son, Mark, 59, who works in the Rowan University facilities department and lives in Greenwich Township.

He notes that Ganci helps fill the void left by the death of his mother's old friends, including fellow students in an adult Sunday school class at a local Methodist church.

Ganci "walked in, and we were friends, period," says Veda Showers, sitting in the living room of the home she shares with one of her daughters.

She's a lively lady, with a twinkle in her eye, and the day I visit is a good day. But the day before, "I had a big setback," says Showers, looking across the room for a bit of guidance.

"You were very, very tired," Ganci says gently.

Showers drifts off a bit, and Ganci notes that her client is frustrated at not being able to be active in church.

"Veda and I talk Scripture," she says. "It gives her an outlet for her faith, a chance to share her wisdom. We talk of dreams and hopes and joys."
And occasionally, Ganci adds, "we talk about what heaven might be like."

kriordan@phillynews.com

@inqkriordan

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