Veterans serving Veteran patients create a healing connection

By elyzabethanne

Vietnam War Veteran John Eilers
Pictured with Vietnam War Veteran John Eilers are, from left, Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jimmy Richard, Marine Corps Veteran Nicole Richard and Army Sgt. Daiana Wininger.

Nicole Richard is kind of in awe.

Well, as she is a former Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, maybe it is more appropriate to say shock and awe.

To provide a bit of background, Richard has a certain niche when it comes to volunteering. “Kids and the elderly, to me, are really close to God,” Richard said.

As a single woman serving in the Marine Corps in Okinawa, she would sign up through the chaplain to serve in the community. It was something she did throughout her 11-year military career, working with the elderly and school children overseas in Japan, Thailand and Korea. She left military service in 2012.

In 2015, she called Diane Sancilio, the Director of Volunteer Services at Hospice of the Chesapeake, to find a way to serve seniors. When Sancilio learned she was talking with a Marine Corps Veteran, she told her about the Veteran-to-Veteran volunteer program that pairs volunteers with military experience with hospice patients who also served. After her spiel, Sancilio heard nothing on the other end of the phone. She even had to ask if Richard was still on the line.

“I was in shock about this because I didn’t even know it existed,” Richard said. She couldn’t believe that there was an opportunity for her to not only care for elderly hospice patients – but also fellow Veterans. It was kismet.

The 33-year-old mother of three from Annapolis threw herself into volunteering. She has done much of her work performing Reiki therapy at the Inpatient Care Center in Pasadena. And though she has served many patients who aren’t Veterans, she said when she works with those who have served, they feel an instant connection, “We all hold those same values, even the families,” she said. “A lot of time, these Veterans, at the end of their life, all they need to transition is to share their story, and for us to give them that welcome home that they didn’t get. They have sacrificed so much.”

The Vet-to-Vet program is part of the We Honor Veterans Program, a collaboration of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and Department of Veterans Affairs. Program partners like Hospice of the Chesapeake use resources and education provided by the NHPCO and the VA to help Veteran Volunteers care for Veteran patients and their families. With more than 25 percent of Hospice of the Chesapeake patients having served in the military the need for Patient Care Volunteers who also are Veterans is growing.

Many Veteran Volunteers take it to the next level of volunteer after performing an Honor Salute for a Veteran patient. The brief but moving ceremony takes place in the patient’s home or at his or her bedside. It demonstrates a tremendous respect for the patient while also serving as an intimate moment for all involved. Richard tells of her first Honor Salute. The patient’s daughter said he had become sullen and unresponsive, and she didn’t think he would talk. Upon learning the patient was a fellow Marine, she asked her husband to join them. Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Jimmy Richard is still in active duty, assigned to Marine Barracks Washington, D.C.

The minute he saw the Richards in their uniforms, the patient perked up.

“He talked so much. We used our terminology – oorah, semper fidelis — and he was smiling, telling us about his unit, where he served, and what he’s done,” Nicole said.

Before leaving, Jimmy removed the pin from his cover and gave it to the man. There were tears all around.

The moment cemented the purpose of having the program Nicole. “He wouldn’t talk to others, but he was open to talking to us because we understand, the terminology, the values — honor, courage and commitment” she said.

She said the families will sometimes roll their eyes as a patient starts telling “another” war story. “But (Veterans) get it. It heals us, too. We have our own mental and physical wounds. Just listening to somebody else kind of helps heal us, too.”

Nicole is still a bit in awe.

“I am still digesting this is here. And I am excited to be learning more. I thought it was amazing to volunteer at the Veterans Day event,” she said, adding that the Veterans she helped at the ceremony, which included an opportunity for Veterans to talk about their service, shared her surprise.

“They are in shock about it, too,” she said. “They are thinking, ‘they shared my story, they understand, they honor me’.”

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