Thoughts by: Joe Agnello, Chaplain and Bereavement Specialist, Transitions

Join us in honoring our nation’s veterans and those who provide support to veterans and their families, especially on November 11th.

Retired from the U.S. Air Force, Joe Agnello has first-hand experience with the intricacies of transitioning from military service to civilian life. As a Chaplain and Bereavement Specialist for Transitions, he applies his personal and professional experience to provide exceptional support to our patients and their families.

“As a Chaplain and Bereavement Specialist, I have given many presentations for long-term care communities, senior centers and other gatherings celebrating veterans on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Over the years, I have held pinning ceremonies for veterans in the presence of their families and caregivers and ministered to veteran’s widows and families, thanking them for their sacrifices. Most importantly, I have ministered to veterans on their deathbeds, giving a final opportunity to let go of secrets they have carried for years.”

Read below as Joe shares his  journey to support fellow veterans and the lessons that helped to shape his career that has been filled with giving to others.

—————————————————————————————————-

Veterans are people too! Just like everyone else, we become ill or get injured as we live our life. Some of us returned from the military with illnesses such as exposure to Agent Orange, injuries such as traumatic brain injury or stress-related disorders. If we are blessed and get old, we often acquire the conditions that accompany old age, becoming hospice patients in the same way others do.

In the years following my return home from service in 1966, I had heard of a combat veteran who was living on the streets in Chicago’s “Skid Row” area and had developed PTS (Veterans don’t use the “D” because we don’t accept being diagnosed as mentally ill). He couldn’t sleep at night due to the nightmares he brought home. As I searched for him, I met many other homeless veterans living in similar situations. 

Over the next seven years, I made it my mission to help those who had struggled upon their return home. I bonded with over 2,000 homeless WWII veterans who were my heroes. I use the word “bonded” because I gave them a relationship with someone who cared about them, which is something they were not getting while living and dying in places like Skid Row. 

During this time, I learned the things that helped veterans are the same things that help us all: having someone who cares for us and provides us with support. I found that many of whom I made acquaintance believed that no matter how bad their circumstances were, someone cared about them. After all, they served their country! Surely their country cared about them in spite of the shame, guilt, self-condemnation, outrage and sorrow they may have experienced upon returning home. This was truly a moral injury, and it only motivated me to continue helping veterans get back on their feet and live a fulfilling, happy life. 

Everything I have learned about the care of veterans began with my interactions with these homeless vets. I recognized the importance of building relationships with caring people, fostering spirituality that recognized each person’s fundamental dignity and worth, and relieving the physical pain they faced on a daily basis. 

Further, I learned that many needed to restore the pride and dignity they experienced in the military as young men and women stepping out in faith to represent our nation. Whether  homeless or successful in reentry, these veterans needed to rise above the feelings of powerlessness, loneliness, boredom and unhappiness that plagued so many. I found the emotional lift needed came from being recognized and appreciated by their country for their service and sacrifices made.

When I began to think about the best way for me to continue to assist veterans meet their needs and properly reenter society, hospice care came to mind. At the end of their lives, veterans needed to be recognized, cared for and appreciated. Hospice did just that, alongside providing a variety of benefits to the patients, which is why, I decided to join Transitions Hospice. 

As a hospice bereavement counselor, I have given many presentations to long-term care communities, senior centers and other gatherings celebrating veterans on Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Over the years, I have held pinning ceremonies for veterans in the presence of their families and caregivers and ministered to veteran’s widows and families, thanking them for their sacrifices. Most importantly, I have ministered to veterans on their deathbeds, giving them a final opportunity to let go of the troubles they have carried for years. 

Of all the marvelous ways Transitions Hospice cares for patients who are veterans, our commitment to vigil sitting with veterans and their families is the greatest benefit in my opinion. No veteran should die alone. I once sat with a dying former marine who posted pictures of his lovely wife and his former military commander, Chesty Puller, on the wall facing his bed. (instead of the above crossed out) One night, I asked him about Chesty. He said that Chesty once told him, “All right, they’re on our left, they’re on our right, they’re in front and they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time.” This reminiscing sustained him. It reminded him that no matter what faced him ahead, no matter what challengers were to come, he could handle anything thrown his way. Many times, stories like this were the best way to bring a smile to the face of a vet at the end-of-life.

We also serve the veteran’s family as their loved one is being torn away from them. At times, we provide comfort without words through our presence at their side. When families see the honor and appreciation we have for their loved one who is a veteran, their tears are filled with pride and joy, not sorrow; many times I have witnessed this while officiating  a memorial service for a veteran. 

Our veteran patients receive the very same quality care that all our patients receive but the special touch they get is being recognized and valued for their service to our country.