Hospice volunteers salute veterans as they prepare to die
By CHRIS ANDERSON | The Sarasota Herald-Tribune | Published: July 24, 2019
SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Jon Marston arrives with tissues in his pocket and pride in his heart and stands respectfully tall at the foot of their beds: His job is to salute veterans as they prepare to die.
Marston is a 74-year-old volunteer at Tidewell Hospice and is part of the We Honor Veterans program. One of 58 volunteers in the area, he comes to veterans' homes, or visits them in nursing facilities, and the ceremonious 20 minutes he spends honoring them is as poignant as it is powerful.
Marston presents each vet with a special pin commemorating their service. Some are pinned to hats, some to shirts and some to nightgowns. Wives and daughters receive pins too — pins of angels holding American flags. That's usually the time Marston pulls out the tissues.
Marston also presents the vets with a certificate of appreciation that reads: "On behalf of a grateful nation the staff and volunteers of Tidewell Hospice pay special tribute to you for your military service to the United States of America for advancing the hope of freedom and liberty for all."
The ceremony concludes with a salute from Marston, whether the person has the faculties to discern he is saluting or not.
"They almost always salute back," he said.
In addition, the vets are presented with patriotic blankets, and some are made by local quilting clubs. La Casa Mobile Home Park in North Port, for example, made 50 and donated them to Tidewell in February.
After Marston visited the Venice home of 84-year-old David Pattison last week, Pattison and his wife, Patty, were so touched they made a donation so the club can buy more material.
Sometimes veterans are at home and alert during the ceremony. Sometimes they are in nursing facilities and in comas. Either way, Marston is careful and respectful with his words.
"Even when they appear to be sleeping, they can hear you," he said.
The most difficult visits are to veterans who have Alzheimer's or dementia.
"They know you are there," Marston said. "They just don't know why you are there."
Marston, who lives in Port Charlotte, goes to homes at the family's convenience, day or night. Once, he arrived only to find the veteran had passed 15 minutes prior. He performed the ceremony anyway.
The Tidewell program has been in place since 2008 and is one of only 11 in the country with a Level 5 distinction. Essentially it is a model for all others. The program has served around 20,000 vets in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. In recent years it has focused special attention on the needs of Vietnam veterans, of which Marston is one. He served in the Navy.
Marston was looking for something to do a few years ago when he came across two women at Winn-Dixie who knew about the program. He volunteered.
One of 58, he is there to secure pins to nightgowns, offer tissues to family members and salute some for the final time.
"How do I hold it together?" he said. "I don't know."