Belmont Citizen-Herald — November 16, 2017
It was cold that day. The day before Christmas in the Midwest usually is. The black hearse wound its way down the narrow lane to the grave site. A veteran was gone, to be buried with full military honors in a national cemetery in rural Iowa.
The bugler raised his instrument. Taps echoed through the trees and rolled over row upon row of headstones. The 15-member military Honor Guard from Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) fired its 21-gun salute. The head of the Honor Guard solemnly took the flag, having been removed from the casket and properly folded. He delivered it to. . .
No-one. Nobody was there. No family. No friend. No neighbor or colleague or former roommate.
And the head of the Honor Guard that day, Belmont High graduate Bill McEvoy, realized right then and there that this was not the way the world should be.
The image from that lonely rural cemetery remained seared in McEvoy’s mind over the years. When he retired, McEvoy decided it was time for him to pull out that memory and finally act on it. He began to volunteer at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Bedford (MA). He quickly became involved with the No Veteran Dies Alone program. He’s volunteered there ever since, more than eight years now.
The program is directed toward veterans in hospice care at Bedford’s VA hospital. (No Veteran Dies Alone is a national program through many VA hospitals.) Some veterans are in the hospice care beds at the Bedford hospital. Others are admitted for hospice care, but remain in the general population. The vast majority of veterans McEvoy has worked with are Vietnam veterans or older.
The No Veteran Dies Alone program, McEvoy says, has two components to it. The first component involves “socialization visits.” Through this part of the program, a volunteer sits with the veteran. Sometimes they talk; other times they listen to music. As a volunteer, he may read poetry or do nothing at all other than to hold the person’s hand. The point, he says, is simply to “be there. To get to know them.” What you provide, McEvoy says, is the “gift of presence.”
The second program component is directed toward veterans determined by the VA medical team to be “actively dying.” Sometimes these veterans don’t have anyone. Sometimes, it has been a long process and the family simply needs the ability to take a break. Sometimes geographic distance makes a family’s presence impossible. McEvoy’s role through No Veteran Dies Alone, he says, is to “stand in the place for those who aren’t there.”
That’s not to say he’s present whenever someone passes. He eventually learned, however, that “it is not so important to be there at the end of the journey, as it is important to walk with them along the way.”
“Be sure to emphasize,” McEvoy urged me when we sat down together, “that the story is not about me. It is only about the veterans.” In fact, he says, there are no limits on who can be a No Veteran Dies Alone volunteer. “Every volunteer has their own reasons for being there. Anyone can do it. All you need is a good heart, a capacity for understanding, and the ability to be a good listener.”
One need not stand in a cold Iowa cemetery on the day before Christmas to appreciate the importance of the No Veteran Dies Alone program. Persons who might want to volunteer for No Veteran Dies Alone should call Laurel Holland, 781-687-3074. Persons who know a veteran they would like to receive hospice care through the VA hospital should call Karen Budnick, 781-983-9170.