OAKHURST, Calif. — There are close to 22 million military veterans in the United States today and more than 20% are either nearing or have already surpassed the nation's average life expectancy of 78.
As a way to help families and veterans cope with the inevitable hardships during their loved ones' final days, and as a way to ensure that veterans will not be alone in their final hours, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) has recently created a program dubbed "No Veteran Dies Alone" (NVDA).
Founded within the past few years, the one-of-a-kind program places volunteers at the bedside of dying veterans as a way to provide comfort and reassurance to the families of those who previously helped defend the nation's liberty and ensured the freedoms that many Americans enjoy today.
In some cases, veterans have moved to distant parts of the country making it financially difficult for their family members to be present; and in many instances, family members are either not around or are unable to commit to a 24-hour per day bedside visit with their loved ones. In extreme cases, the veterans themselves have outlived their family members or other loved ones, leaving them alone in their final hours.
For Coarsegold residents and NVDA participants Robert Trice and his wife, the circumstances were overwhelming while they visited Robert's father in the Veterans Association Hospital in Fresno.
Homer Trice, a member of the 29th Marine Division on D-Day and recipient of a bronze star for his bravery behind enemy lines, was facing complications during the aftermath of an apparent stroke he experienced in early February of 2014.
Following several trips to Fresno and countless hours spent in the hospital, on May 2 a reluctant Robert, along with his wife and daughter, made the difficult decision to head home for some rest.
"I had reached the end of my rope and the string tied to it. I was going to go home to get some rest," Robert said.
However, on his way out of the hospital, something deep within his subconscious told Robert not to leave his father alone.
Torn between staying with his father and getting the rest necessary to maintain his health, Robert decided to leave for the night and return in the morning. But not without addressing his concerns first.
On his way out the door, with a heavy heart, Robert approached an unnamed nurse and pleaded for another option.
"I don't want him to pass away...to die alone," a teary-eyed Robert told the nurse.
To his surprise, the nurse informed him of the No Veteran Dies Alone program developed by the VA, which had been introduced to the Fresno hospital within the past six months.
Taking Robert's hand, the nurse told him they would make sure there was another veteran in his father's room while Robert was away. She explained how a volunteer veteran would take his place in the wake of Robert's absence and hold his father's hand throughout the night if the nurse or doctor was not able to be there.
Feeling a bit more relieved by the comfort of the NVDA program, Robert kissed his father on the forehead, told him he loved him and walked out of the hospital, not knowing if it would be the last time he would see his father alive.
"There was such a sense of relief because here I was walking out of my palliative care room, and when I looked back, I saw my father unconscious. I simply couldn't leave him alone," Robert said.
Later that night about 8 p.m, with a fellow veteran by his side, Homer Trice passed away at the age of 90.
Although deeply heartbroken by the passing of his father and hero, Robert expressed gratitude that someone was there for his father's final moments.
When asked what he would say to the veteran who sat by his father's bedside while he was taking his final breathes, Robert accompanied his tears with a gracious smile.
"There are no words to thank them, I'd give them the biggest hug," Robert said. He also said he would have used the program a bit more if he would have had the chance, believing this kind of program is necessary for all families and should not be limited to veterans.
"I am just so glad they have the program, not just for my dad, but for all veterans who reach this inevitable stage of their lives," Robert said. "I think every hospital in the country, not just the veteran's hospital, should have something similar to that — it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."
The NVDA program, designed to provide a presence and companionship to Veterans at the end of their lives when family and friends are unable to be there, stems directly from the organization's motto taken from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. The motto "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," embodies the No Veteran Dies Alone mind set and reflects the purpose and desire to provide for those who offered their lives in order to preserve our nation's freedoms.
Much like with the Trice family, the Veterans Association is dealing with more and more veterans who are passing away each year. That's why the NVDA continues to pursue quality volunteers to help with their programs.
The NVDA volunteers do much more than sit bedside. Volunteers take time out of their lives to talk with veterans, assist family members with rest breaks, reading, playing music, keeping nursing staffed informed of any changes or concerns, and anything to make the veterans more comfortable.
Volunteers of the program are asked to visit with patients on a regular basis and can be available at all hours of the day, using the google.docs program to continuously update schedules and patient status in real time.