Command Sergeant Major Rodwell L. Forbes, the Garrison Sergeant Major of the United States Army Garrison at Fort Meade (Dec 2016 – Sep 2017) was the one responsible for introducing me to Hospice of the Chesapeake’s Honor Salute Program and I am forever indebted to him for doing so. This is one of the most powerful and meaningful volunteer activities I have ever been involved with.
The Honor Salute program is hosted by the Hospice of the Chesapeake and is a partnership with volunteers from the United States Naval Academy and military members throughout the National Capital Region. Military volunteers accompany Hospice of the Chesapeake volunteers to the residence, hospital, or living facility of a Veteran in hospice care and conduct a formal ceremony of recognition and appreciation for their military service. In addition to meeting with the Veteran and their families, the Veteran patients are presented with a Certificate of Appreciation, a handmade patriotic quilt, pinned with an American flag lapel pin, and then rendered a salute which is often the last time these men and women are publicly thanked for their military service.
Every Honor Salute is different but they are all meaningful. During the Summer of 2019, I volunteered with the Hospice of the Chesapeake to go to the residence of an Air Force Veteran to conduct an Honor Salute. Before arriving, we heard from the Veteran’s wife to verify our arrival time and to let us know that her husband was wearing his service dress and was extremely excited about our visit. Apparently, it was all he talked about in the days leading up to it. When we arrived his entire family had gathered to be a part of the experience and were amazed at the stories shared by their father – many of which they had never heard. The next day, we heard from his spouse that he had passed away peacefully and she stated that she believed he was waiting for the visit to happen before letting go.
Occasionally, we were called to conduct Honor Salutes for Veterans that were unconscious, semi-conscious, or simply too frail to express themselves. Nonetheless, I always strove to treat every Honor Salute I was on the same. Regardless of the veterans’ willingness or ability to interact, all are honored, thanked, and saluted for their service.
In August 2018, I led a group Honor Salute at an assisted living facility in Maryland with several teammates of mine. We honored several veterans, but because they couldn’t all be assembled in one place, we were traveling from room to room to visit and conduct the Salutes.
On the way to the last Honor Salute of the day, the director of the living facility informed me that the last veteran was non-responsive and relayed that he hadn’t spoken since he’d been admitted to the facility. He was conscious and alert but did not speak. I thanked her for the heads up and let her know that even so, we would conduct the Honor Salute in the same manner as the previous ones. We’d introduce ourselves, talk to the Veteran, present the same mementos, and conclude with all of us rendering an Honor Salute.
And we did. And though this Vietnam Veteran didn’t say anything or show much of a response, we knew he was receiving us. You could feel it. As we were wrapping up the visit and as a prelude to the actual salute, I called my small formation to the position of attention before rendering the salute. Then, as I always did, I would address the Veteran by their rank and name and explain that the salute was a symbol of respect, gratitude, and appreciation from a fellow service member for their honorable and faithful service.
The surprise came immediately after I addressed this “non-verbal” veteran by his rank and name when he loudly responded with a “Yes, Sir!” The unexpected response took us all by surprise and when I looked over at the hospital staff, they were more shocked than we were. After a few seconds to gather myself, I proceeded with my spiel and we rendered a very emotional Honor Salute. None of us could believe what we had just witnessed and we were all tearfully smiling.
While this was the only thing this Vietnam Veteran said, he proved what we already knew – this program is powerful. He knew that we were there, and this was a meaningful connection and experience for him. No one present that day will ever forget it.
Thank you to all military members for their service and to those military volunteers who participate or have participated in activities like this. These types of programs don’t work without your involvement. Military service is our unbreakable bond.
To the Hospice of the Chesapeake, you are a world-class organization. Your staff and your volunteers are amazingly selfless human beings. You are the type of people I want to surround myself with. You donate your time, energy, and your emotions with no expectations of anything in return. You are all wonderful and I appreciate you. Thank you for running this program and everything else Hospice of The Chesapeake does for hospice patients and their families.
The points of impact from my participation in Honor Salutes are profound. It emphasized the deep bond that military veterans have with one another. There is nothing like it. The moment you enter the room in a military uniform, there is an immediate bond with the veteran regardless of race, gender, military branch, conflict, or length of time served. That bond is centered on service and sacrifice that only those who have worn our Nation’s cloth can truly appreciate.
Most significantly, however, Honor Salutes changed the way I view both life and death. They served as a reminder of the fragility of life while emphasizing the importance of belonging and the power of connection. Volunteering in this capacity reinforces the value and importance of caring and reminds us not to take our lives for granted, but to live each moment to its fullest. It also taught me that the end can be just as beautiful as the beginning.
True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost. — Arthur Ashe