Military veterans Gerald Bronzell and Bill Wong have been teaming up to help fellow veterans for a long time.

Before their current volunteer work with the We Honor Veterans program for Northwestern Medicine Palos Home Health and Hospice, they joined a St. Louis-based organization to help colleagues suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by “being a shoulder to lean on,” Bronzell said.

They are there to listen, too, in their latest volunteer role with the We Honor Veterans program at the hospital in Palos Heights. Although all hospice staff and volunteers are trained and actively participate in the program, Wong and Bronzell are the only volunteers who are veterans. The common experiences they’ve shared with patients give them an advantage.

“When a veteran meets another veteran, you are off to the races,” said Bronzell, who served on a Navy destroyer from 1956 to 1959 and has been a hospice volunteer at Palos for 20 years. “In a selfish manner, I will say it’s extremely rewarding for me to be able to honor a veteran.”

Wong, who served in the Marines from 1965 to 1969, including a stint in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, has been with hospice for four or five years, he said. When Kathleen Beary, the hospital’s hospice volunteer and bereavement coordinator, asked if he’d like to join We Honor Veterans, Wong was interested.

Appreciation certificates, flag blankets and visits from veterans are distributed as part of the We Honor Veterans program at Northwestern Medicine Palos. Hospital staff also educate families about available benefits and coordinate hospice care with Veterans Affairs.

We Honor Veterans is a national program that provides hospice agencies with resources to honor veterans and provide for their needs as they approach the end of their lives.

“I thought it would be the greatest thing, because veterans have a tendency to talk to other veterans and relay the stories to them and not anyone else,” he said. “I thought I could really help in that respect,” Wong said.

Some of those stories are not easy to hear — and that’s the point of this program.

“It gives them an opportunity to express the experiences, not usually the good experiences, they have while serving our country. It’s just the way it is — they don’t like to talk about these things with their family because they’re tough, tough situations,” Bronzell said.

He told the story of a man in his 90s who served on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.

“It’s important to know that a destroyer is small. It’s a sacrificial lamb. It’s very vulnerable. If a Kamikaze is destroying the big ships, it gets in the way,” Bronzell said.

“He was telling us he was in one compartment and the one next to his was hit by a Kamikaze. A ship is made so one compartment can be hit and the other won’t be damaged,” he said. “He survived but they had to wait for five days before they could go into the compartment before they could get the remains of those sailors. One of his best friends was in that compartment.”

Wong has been affected by the stories veterans in hospice share. A fellow Vietnam veteran talked about his service in Asia “and it brought up some bad memories for me too,” he said.

Another story involved a World War II era Marine who fought in the Pacific islands.

“The Marines came onto the shore and had some terrible battles with the Japanese. They never surrendered. (The Marines) couldn’t get at them — they were in caves. They went in with flamethrowers,” Bronzell said before pausing to compose himself.

“He was telling a story and he was getting it off his chest. His wife happened to be in the other room and happened to be with her caregiver. She had never heard that story,” he continued. “I went to the wake and his daughter thanked me for letting him get it out.”

Beary, the volunteer coordinator, said the veterans spend a couple of hours each week doing companionship visits.

“They are two amazing men. I can hardly talk without crying listening to the stories,” she said.

“The part that gets so emotional is seeing the end result of those meetings. The story Jerry said about the gentleman who lost his friend. The peace that he had — he had never told that story. He was telling it to a fellow Navy man and processing all that angst that he had stored for many decades. …. He died a few days later. He was a different man from when we entered the house and left the house.”

Not all of the stories they hear are tragic. “I had a hospice patient that was on honor guard detail with President Eisenhower and was really proud of that. He was really proud that he was part of that unit,” Wong said. “I had another gentleman who was in counterintelligence who served with the national counterintelligence service through five different presidents. You run into veterans of all kinds and they are all proud of their service.”

Although the hospital has incorporated care for veterans all along, it recently joined the national We Honor Veterans initiative, Beary noted.

“The goal of the program is to help hospice professionals develop an awareness of the challenges veterans may be facing and guide them to help veterans achieve a more peaceful end of life,” she said.

Veteran volunteers visit with patients who have had similar military experiences, and “staff and volunteers conduct pinning ceremonies to honor the patient for their service to our country,” she said, including a military salute. In addition, families of veterans in the hospice program can learn about available benefits and get help coordinating care with Veterans Affairs.

Ludwig Soder, who served in the Air Force for 25 years as a pilot, earning the rank of colonel before retiring and then flying for Midway Airlines, was a hospice patient in the program. Before his death on April 30, he was visited by trained hospice volunteer Tony Dakewicz, who is not a veteran.

Mary Soder, who was married to Ludwig for 59 years, said those visits meant a lot. “His first visit he stayed a while and chatted, and subsequent visits he brought aviation books from the library to chat about them with my husband,” she said. “It gave him a time to share his experiences with aviation and his life in the Air Force and flying with Midway Airlines, and Tony was an eager listener.”

Ludwig Soder, who spent 25 years in the Air Force, receives a pin, flag blanket and veteran appreciation certificate from Tony Dakewicz, a hospice volunteer with Northwestern Medicine Palos. Soder died April 30 and was buried early this month at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. His wife, Mary Soder, said Dakewicz made one final visit to her husband at his wake. "It was another beautiful touch,’ she said.

Dakewicz visited Soder once a week, with the first visit about two hours and the rest about an hour, said Soder’s daughter, Nancy Begelow. “He really went out of his way to make it very special for my dad,” she shared, adding that her father was “mentally very sharp” until the last four days of his life.

“(The visits) seemed to me to be a highlight of the week for him if not the month. He had a huge smile on his face,” she said. “Being able to look at the glory days and have someone who really understands it and someone who understands what you’ve given up and losing is very impactful on the health care side.”

Mary Soder was usually present when Dakewicz visited her husband. “I loved hearing my husband’s stories again. And then I found out that Tony’s wife went to the same high school I went to,” she said.

Providing support to veterans in hospice care, including the recognition presentation when they receive a flag pin and blanket and certificates, means as much to the volunteers as it does the patients.

“Mostly it’s the joys that I see from the families that we serve, and they’re really, really appreciative of what we’re doing and they couldn’t thank us enough,” Wong said. “I had a patient who I thought was asleep, but when I went to salute, I could see the hand going up to salute me back,” he recalled, blinking back tears.

“Going to Vietnam I saw a lot of senseless death, what I thought was senseless deaths,” Wong shared. “I really had an abhorrence to death until I came into the program. It gave me a whole new perspective on mortality and how we could help other people. It’s really been a blessing to me more so than the patients.”

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He said he enjoys giving the recognition veterans might not have received while serving their country.

“Especially the Vietnam veterans,” Wong said. “I remember coming home from Vietnam and I got hit with tomatoes and rotten eggs and called ‘baby killer,’ and that stuck with me all those years. So seeing the gratitude on their faces that they were recognized for their service gave me some closure too — that I’m able to provide that service to them.”

Bronzell feels “honored and privileged” to be able to volunteer. “I just feel good being able to be there for the family,” he said. “To be in the program is really a blessing, with all the people who care. Hospice has allowed me to come to terms with my mortality.”

He added that because it’s a government program, they don’t bring up religion.

“We go by the rules. We’re military people — we toe the line. But you can sense it out. I noticed this guy had a Bible that was really ragged. He asked me if I would pray with him. The whole family got around and we prayed together. And boy did they pray.”

Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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