On February 18, 2019, Hospice East Bay Volunteer Bob Ellis was interviewed by Stephen Burchik for the CCC-TV program “Veterans’ Voices.” This is an edited transcript of that interview.
Tell us about your military service.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps in July 1967 and reported Parris Island, SC, for boot camp training. After boot camp, I completed Field Radio Operator training at Camp Pendleton, CA, and was assigned to the 9th Marine Regiment in Vietnam. After being in-country for five months, I was assigned to be the radio operator and shotgun for Regimental Commander Colonel Robert H. Barrow.
Col. Barrow was a highly-decorated veteran at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. He was also a decorated Marine officer in World War II, the last Commandant veteran of that war. After his assignment overseas, Col. Barrow returned to work at the Pentagon. In 1979, Barrow, then a General, was promoted to be the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Being so closely associated with General Barrow was a privilege and an honor.
For my service in Vietnam, I was awarded the standard war-service medals, along with the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star and the Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V”. After Vietnam, I was sent to a small base in Norfolk, VA. The Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet was based there, along with NATO Atlantic headquarters. I was assigned to a Security Guard detachment for the base, where I served as Sergeant-of-the-Guard. It was a top secret assignment due to the intelligence work that was done there. I was discharged there from active service in July 1970.
Tell us about your volunteer work with veterans.
I volunteer with Hospice East Bay, which was established in 1977 to support patients who wanted to die at home. Their mission is to care for patients through the end of life, easing fear and suffering, while also ensuring that patients and families retain dignity and control over their personal choices. To become a volunteer, you must complete 30+ hours of training and pass a series of tests.
There are presently 180 volunteers at Hospice East Bay, seven of which are veterans. I have also volunteered with Yolo Hospice in Davis, CA, completed hospice training with the Sacramento Hospice Consortium, and was certified as an End-of-Life Specialist by Teaching Transitions.
What is Vet-To-Vet?
Hospice East Bay’s “Veteran-to-Veteran” program was established to recognize and honor our veterans. While many of our WWII veterans have died, many Korean War vets are still coming onto hospice care. Many more Vietnam vets, our largest segment to the veteran population, are coming onto hospice care as well.
Veteran volunteers may sit at bedside with veteran patients, to provide relief and support for caregivers, or provide support for spouses and families of veterans. Veteran patients are offered the opportunity to be honored with a “pinning ceremony,” in which the veteran is presented a certificate which honors his or her military service, and is given an American flag and lapel pin. We also conduct pinning ceremonies at many private residential care facilities throughout Contra Costa County each year, during the celebration of Veterans Day in November. These ceremonies are powerful, emotional, and celebratory events that are very well-received by the veteran patient, their families, and their friends.
How did you get started in this program?
Hospice volunteers who are also veterans are asked if they would like to participate in the “Veteran-to-Veteran” program and I decided I would like to participate. We met with Noga Wellner-Kessler, Master Social Worker & Veteran’s Coordinator for Hospice East Bay and completed another short training program. Noga is also a veteran of the Israeli Army Medical Corps.
Did you have any personal experience as a caregiver?
In 2001, my dad became ill in upstate New York and I took a leave of absence from work to assist him. He was soon admitted to a local hospice program and I cared for him until his death four months later. I was so impressed with the work of the hospice people, the care that they provided and the support that was available.
What were your initial concerns when you started?
I initially was concerned if I was emotionally strong enough to provide support to patients reaching the end of life. Although I had seen and been close to many deaths during Operation Dewey Canyon in the Ashau Valley (also known as the “Valley of Death”), hospice volunteer work is quite different. After receiving training from Hospice East Bay, I knew I was prepared for some difficult times. With my Buddhist background and training, I know that impermanence is an ever-present event. I believe that volunteer work prepares me with dealing with my own death.
We understand that you are involved in Visits and Vigils. Can you describe these activities?
Visits are requested by the Social Worker whenever he or she determines that a volunteer visitor would bring comfort to the patient, or to provide a respite for the caregiver to go grocery shopping, run an errand, or just have some free time. The visits can involve reading the newspaper to the patient, playing a card game, listening to music, watching TV, or just quietly sitting with the patient. A visit is usually four hours in duration.
A vigil is requested by the family when a patient is determined to be within three days of death. Sometimes a family member requests a vigil in order to have support during this difficult time. At other times, family members may be located in another state and request that someone be with their loved one during their final days and hours. Vigil watches are assigned for two-hour intervals among the vigil volunteers.
What is the reaction of veterans and their families when you visit?
In almost all instances, veterans are receptive to our visits and enjoy talking about their military service. We exchange memories of our military service and provide them with comfort and respect.
The families are also very appreciative of our efforts. Many of our ceremonies are attended by spouses, children, grandchildren and close friends.
What are a couple of the best memories you have from your activities?
Each and every situation is different. Many of our activities bring tears to our eyes, pain in our hearts, and will always be remembered. I have found recently that ceremonies for Marine Corps veterans of Vietnam have a special meaning for me. Semper Fidelis is a motto that all Marines retain, so being able to comfort, assist and recognize those that have gone through similar experiences in their service is a special time for me.
If a veteran is interested in helping, how should they prepare?
I have found hospice volunteering work to be a very rewarding opportunity to support someone as they approach the end of their life. I believe you must be emotionally strong, compassionate, and be willing to be a good listener. You must know that your visit is not about you.
If anyone is interested in volunteering for Hospice East Bay, the first step is to complete the initial training. Upon completing this training, you will be given the opportunity to join the Veteran-to-Veteran program. Hospice East Bay is located in Pleasant Hill. They can be reached at (925) 887-5678.