Naval Academy students give aging veterans a final salute
By SUSAN REIMER | The Baltimore Sun | Published: May 4, 2014
SEVERNA PARK, Md. — Richard Harryman was wearing a crisp blue shirt for the occasion, and his hospital bed was in the living room.
There were punch and cookies on a table in the hall, and family and friends were waiting when a car arrived carrying four midshipmen.
Harryman, 85, served in both the Marine Corps and the Air Force. The midshipmen were there to deliver a final salute to a dying veteran.
In a program unique among the service academies, young people from the Naval Academy, on the threshold of their military careers, are visiting veterans at the end of their lives to acknowledge their service as only another member of the military can.
"Detail, cover," senior Kimberly Bernardy barked gently, and in unison the mids pulled their hats from beneath their arms and slowly put them in place.
"Detail, ready. Present arms," she said, and they slowly raised their hands in salute. Eyes straight ahead, still as statues, the midshipmen looked sharp and somber in their dark dress uniforms.
Harryman, more alert than he had been for some time, lifted his pale hand to return the salute.
"I feel like I have my military family with me," he said, barely above a whisper. His real family — wife, Jean, and his daughters Diane Gray and Deborah Rolig — rolled from tears to smiles and back again during the ceremony.
"From a future Marine to a Marine," said Bernardy, who will join the Corps when she graduates in May. She bent close to be sure that he heard her. "I thank you for your service."
Four years ago, Bernardy presented the Naval Academy brass with the idea. She was volunteering with Hospice of the Chesapeake, and the organization was looking for a meaningful way to honor veterans in its care.
"We were the perfect fit," she said.
"Kim is the champion of the program," said Michael McHale, president of Hospice of the Chesapeake, which serves Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. "The program grew under her tutelage.
"It is those who are just entering their military service and those who are exiting. These are private, tender moments."
It began with Bernardy and a couple of other midshipmen on Saturdays in November four years ago, in honor of Veterans Day.
The program, renamed the Honor Salute, is now year-round and has grown to include more than 140 midshipmen volunteers who have visited more than 50 veterans in hospice, hospitals, nursing homes and their own homes to offer a sign of respect and a sincere thank-you.
"These are members of the 'greatest generation,' and they are leaving us," said Bernardy, from Highland, Calif.
"It is incredibly difficult sometimes," she said. "It's not like I don't cry in the formation or cry in the car. But it is our duty before they leave to say, 'Good work,' and to thank them."
More than 16 million Americans served in World War II, and it is estimated that they are dying at the rate of about 555 a day. A little over a million survive, and that number does not include veterans from Korea and Vietnam.
"I am so very proud of the men and women who participate in this act of giving back by honoring our veterans," said Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller. "The Final Salute program is a wonderful opportunity for our midshipmen to pay the ultimate respect to those who have bravely served before them."
"I think it is outstanding," said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the American Legion in Washington. As a member of the Air Force stationed at Dover Air Base, he was part of the honor guard that welcomed home more than 250 fallen service members.
"For these young people to understand how important it is to recognize those in hospice is a sign our younger generation understands the importance of honorable military service."
Richard Hood Harryman joined the Marine Corps out of high school — to grow up, he told his wife — and then attended the University of Maryland on an ROTC scholarship from the Air Force, studying art. He spent six years in the Air Force. Though he did not see combat, he left with the rank of captain.
Harryman became a professional painter, and he spent his career teaching and capturing on canvas the Chesapeake Bay waterfront as well as familiar Annapolis scenes. He owned Chesapeake Gallery in Annapolis and founded the former Maryland College of Art and Design.
But now Harryman, whose paintings hang in shops and restaurants in Annapolis, is suffering from prostate cancer and multiple myeloma, and his memory has been ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, said Jean, his wife of 63 years.
After the salute on a recent afternoon, he gently fingered the two framed certificates the midshipmen presented from Hospice of the Chesapeake — one thanking him for his service to each branch of the military.
"We pay special tribute to you for your military service to America and for advancing the universal hope of freedom and liberty for all," the certificates read.
Matt Robbins, a plebe from Broadway, Va., pinned a flag pin on Harryman's shirt. And Sarah Howard, a rising junior from San Diego who will take over the program next year, brought out a red, white and blue quilt covered with flags, made by a Hospice of the Chesapeake volunteer. She draped it carefully over the sheet covering his very thin legs.
"I can't believe this," said Jean Harryman, her face wet with tears. "This is more than I ever imagined. And he is enjoying it more than I ever expected."
It is a sad duty, to be sure, but the midshipmen, sitting together and discussing the salutes before the visit, all use the same word to describe the experience: "uplifting."
Howard recalled a visit to a dying Marine who was confined to bed and unresponsive. But when she said "Semper Fi" at the end of the salute, he opened his eyes. "In that moment, there was a connection," she said.
"It's hard," she conceded. "You can see the pain. There are no comforting words."
"I love old people," said Pete Severs, who is from Fairfax, Va., and will be a senior next year. "I love their stories. The families are so grateful. And everybody leaves in a better mood. Matt said 'uplifting.' 'Uplifting' is the perfect word."
Some of the veterans the midshipmen visit are very near death; others are alert and ambulatory — and full of stories their families have never heard. "They can talk to us," said. "We have a connection."
"There are Purple Hearts and Silver Stars in these houses, and they are so humble, not a word has ever been spoken about them," said Howard. "What a gift to do something for these veterans."
Once, the mids were too late. The veteran they were to honor had died before they could visit. So Bernardy went to the funeral home to present the certificates to the family and to deliver the final salute.
"I'd lost my grandfather the week before," she said. "And I knelt down and talked to his two grandsons, maybe 13 and 11. That was very meaningful — for me."
Bernardy describes herself as an "old soul," and, in fact, she is two years older than her graduating classmates, having spent two years in college before she was encouraged to apply to the Naval Academy.
Tall, slim and with a big smile, she has a voice filled with authority as she directs the detail during the ceremony. Her self-assurance is manifest in every gesture and every word, especially when she talks about the challenges she will face as a woman in the Marine Corps. She sounds fearless.
"My dad was an enlisted Marine and his dad was a World War II vet," she said. "I was raised by those who had nothing, absolutely nothing, when they started and who still gave back to their country. I always knew the military was going to be in my life.
"This duty? It is the most real thing you can do."
Robbins, the plebe, signed on after hearing about the program during the Midshipmen Action Group orientation — when Naval Academy students learn about the volunteer opportunities open to them.
He describes eating Chick fil-A and talking to a veteran and his family for a couple of hours after the salute, and it sounds like it was a party.
"Of all the things I am a part of on the Yard," said Robbins, referring to the Naval Academy campus, "this is the most rewarding. Reaching out to a community that is not thanked enough for what they have done."
McHale, of Hospice of the Chesapeake, tells the story of an honor salute delivered to a Vietnam vet and the email he received from the veteran's son after his father died.
"He said, 'My dad told me this was the first time he ever felt welcomed home from Vietnam,'" said McHale. "At this really difficult time in the family's life, it is important to honor what they have done for the country."
Midshipmen have delivered honor salutes to a Tuskegee airman and to a Naval Academy graduate.
"They were generations apart, but they share a common story. And there is healing in those stories," said McHale.
As her detail sipped punch and took a tour of the house, where so many of Harryman's paintings hang, Bernardy returned alone to the veteran in the hospital bed and touched his arm.
"You look sharp, Mr. Harryman," she said. "I thank you for all you have done. It is an honor to be in your house with your family."