‘Somebody’s got to do it’: Longview Marine veterans volunteer to visit peers in hospice care

‘Somebody’s got to do it’: Longview Marine veterans volunteer to visit peers in hospice care | Local News | news-journal.com

by Jordan Green

Marines and soldiers usually have some “gall” between them, said Marine Corps veteran Jim Jones. But when he goes to visit Army veteran Tom Williams, the two talk about what they have in common.

On Wednesday, they sat in Williams’ room at Havencare, a Longview nursing home, where they swapped stories about riding in Lockheed C-130 Hercules planes. Both remember those aircraft as loud and cold while in the air — and both remember being shot at when they landed.

“It’s like the semi truck of the sky,” Jones said. “It’s a big cargo plane. The ramp drops down. You can bail out if you wear a parachute.”

“If you’ve lost your mind,” Williams replied.

Those are the kinds of conversations Jones and a couple of other members of the Longview Marine Corps League have with veterans who are in hospice care nearing the end of their lives.

Since 2012, Jones and other Marine veterans have served as “vet-to-vet volunteers” with AccentCare, a home health company, as part of the national We Honor Veterans program. They pay regular visits to veterans in the care of the hospice company at their homes and in healthcare facilities, fighting off the loneliness and isolation that ill senior citizens may face.

But the program needs more volunteers to serve those who served the nation.

“There’s some history, but it’s slipping away from us,” Jones said. “I just think they ought to be recognized. I don’t want them to go out of this world thinking they weren’t important or they didn’t make a difference.”

‘You meet some real heroes’

Across the nation, one in four dying patients is a veteran, according to AccentCare. As veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War reach the end of their lives, many don’t have family members or friends to spend time with them, Jones said.

AccentCare joined the We Honor Veterans program thanks to the help of local Marines. Leaders of the company sought help from other local veterans’ groups, but none stepped up, Jones said.

Then they found the Marine League.

“I just feel like somebody’s got to do it,” he said. “And we’re Marines. That’s what we do. We volunteer.”

Tamara Lang, the volunteer services coordinator for AccentCare, said veterans in hospice care may face depression or the difficulty of moving from their homes to a nursing facility. But volunteers can have a positive impact on them.

“A lot of times, they see the doctors, the nurses, they see the chaplain,” Lang said. “But sometimes, it’s good just to have a friend.”

On Wednesday, Jones donned a Marine Corps ball cap and an AccentCare T-shirt as he walked into Williams’ room at Havencare. Sitting in a wheelchair, Williams was covered in a red, white and blue blanket.

Breakfast and the economy were among their conversation topics.

Volunteers and the veterans they see talk about everything. Or sometimes, almost nothing.

“Most of our job is listening,” Jones said. “Some of them just want to play cards or watch TV. You kind of play off whatever they want to do.”

For Jones, making veterans feel appreciated is a mission. The corporal served during the Vietnam War and remembers the greeting he got when he arrived back in the U.S.: Service members were spit on, yelled at and insulted.

These days, military service tends to be more revered, Jones said. But even though societal views toward those who’ve served may be better, people who haven’t been in the military might struggle to form meaningful connections with those who have. That’s why veterans need the camaraderie and connection of a peer, Jones said.

In the 12 years he’s been a part of the program, Jones has spent time with soldiers, medical staff, airborne troopers and more from some of the most noted military regiments — who fought in some of the most well-known military conflicts — in history.

“Unless you’ve been dipped in the fire, you can’t relate to them, and they can’t relate to you,” Jones said. “It takes somebody that’s been there and done that to understand.

“And that’s why I still do it.”

More volunteers needed

The number of volunteers has declined in recent years, Jones said. Some have died, and some are no longer able to participate because of health concerns. Jones is now one of three who is still active.

“The other companies, they need to step up to the mark,” Jones said, referring to other groups of veterans. “There needs to be more people like us doing it.”

Some veterans in hospice care might not want visitors, but most do, Jones said.

He and Williams have been talking for about a month now. Williams, a longtime Longview resident, grew up a few streets away from the nursing home. He was drafted into the Army in 1965 and served two years, including a 10-month tenure in the Dominican Republic during that nation’s civil war. He was a quartermaster, a position tasked with transporting supplies for troops, and drove a 5-ton truck carrying water.

Jones, who served from 1966 to 1969, knew men who were deployed to the Dominican Republic. That gave the two something to talk about — in addition to C-130s.

Troops often exited the plane to face a hail of gunfire as the aircraft taxied down the runway, Williams and Jones said.

Williams’ solution: “Dig a hole,” he quipped.

Being shot at is nothing like what the movies show, Jones said.

“You know what a bumblebee sounds like? It sounds like that if it’s close to you, but you’ll never hear the one that hits you. It travels faster than the speed of sound,” he said.

Their discussions aren’t all military-focused. Personalities and post-military lives come up in conversation, too. Williams was a trucker for a company in Lufkin, a profession his father inspired him to take up.

Jones, meanwhile, talked about how he got into the Marine Corps in the first place: A county judge in Arkansas gave the self-described troublemaker the choice to join the military and clean up his act — or else. Marine life straightened him out, he said.

Although Jones said he does most of the listening, he doesn’t remain silent all the time. Just ask Williams.

“He can tell you some tales,” Williams said of Jones.