Thursday, October 13, 2016

Another veteran departs ...

There's a special place in my heart for World War II vets. My dad was in the Army, serving in the infantry with the 36th Division, when he was captured and imprisoned in Stalag VII-A, in Moosburg, Germany. That's a long and good story, which I will tell here, someday, at greater length.

Dad died in 1997, at the relatively young age of 77. Now, nearly 20 years later, the rest of our World War II vets are passing at an alarming rate.

From the website of the National WWII Museum, in New Orleans, I gleaned the following:

"According to statistics released by the Veteran’s Administration, our World War II vets are dying at a rate of approximately 492 a day. This means there are approximately only 855,070 veterans remaining of the 16 million who served our nation in World War II."

Now, I'm no math genius, but I think this means that, at this rate, all our living World War II vets will be dying within the next 5 years. It will truly be the end of an era.

Frank (not his real name) is just one example of a veteran we have lost. I met Frank in the course of my duties as a volunteer chaplain in a nursing home. At the age of 94, he had lost most of his mobility, and a stroke had taken most of his speech. Yet, with the sweetest expression, he always managed to thank me for the visit, and for the blessing I gave him at the close. He was a gentle soul, and I visited him most Mondays, whether he was on my list or not. Being in his presence somehow gave me comfort.

A couple of weeks ago, I was called to provide vigil companionship for Frank.  He had gone completely beyond communication by that point, so I simply held his hand, reassured him that he was not alone, and took intermittent looks at a book I was reading. At about 8:30, the end of my shift, Frank's breathing changed subtly, so I stayed on. His breaths came more and more slowly, then, and he departed this life at about 8:50 PM. 

I prayed and sat with Frank for another few minutes before alerting a nurse, because death is a holy moment, a holy moment all too often lost to the turning of the bureaucratic wheels. When those wheels began to turn, I went on home, glad to have been there for Frank.

Days later, I located Frank's too-brief obituary online. There he was, photographed in his Army uniform, and I recognized the same, almost innocent, smile I had come to know. I learned that Frank had participated in the D-Day invasion of Europe. I was glad to have known this sweet warrior. And I was saddened that, at the end of such a long life, he had no one but a hospice volunteer with him at the time of his leaving.

Too soon our World War II vets will no longer be with us. They are our national treasure, and we should listen to their amazing stories while there is still time.

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