On warm July day in a high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a World War II veteran and patient with VNSNY Hospice Care received an unexpected surprise. The veteran, Fred*, had enlisted in the Navy after his beloved older brother died in combat, and had gone on to see action in the Pacific theater. He later became a successful bank executive and active member of the community in his Westchester County hometown—but like most war veterans, he was shadowed by memories, some more painful than others. It also saddened Fred that his medals and discharge papers had gone missing.
At age 90, many years beyond his World War II military service, Fred expressed regret in his final days that his Naval medals and discharge papers had gone missing.
Now, VNSNY Hospice veteran liaison Joe Vitti was at his bedside with duplicates of the medals he had earned and a copy of his discharge papers as well. In the presence of Fred’s wife, Elaine*, and a family friend, Joe awarded the medals one by one, briefly explaining what each represented before pinning it on Fred’s chest: the American Campaign Theater Medal, the Asiatic–Pacific Theater Medal, the World War II Victory medal.
Joe worked with the Department of Defense and the National Archives to track down copies of the medals and papers as part of our hospice program’s commitment to serving military veterans at end of life. In recognition of these efforts, VNSNY has received the highest rating, Level Five, from the national We Honor Veterans campaign. Developed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the Department of Veterans Affairs, We Honor Veterans collaborates with hospices, state hospice organizations, and Veteran Affairs (VA) health care facilities to make US military veterans better aware of end-of-life care and benefits available to them.
Before coming to VNSNY, Joe was an Army intelligence officer whose job was to lead his battalion’s intelligence sections and to lead and care for his subordinate soldiers. Today, Joe’s roles include making veterans aware of their benefits, helping them get their documents in order, guiding veterans and VNSNY social workers through the VA health care system, and training staff members and volunteers to understand the impact that wartime combat can have on veterans, even decades later—most commonly, post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt.
“When working with hospice veterans, it’s important to remember that many have already faced life and death on the battlefield,” Joe says. “Veterans are selfless people who want to help others. Now, they’re asking a hospice team and their family or friends to take care of them, and they often find it hard.”
If a veteran’s case is difficult, Joe will visit the patient’s family to offer support as well. Several times a month, he also orchestrates intimate ceremonies like the one with Fred, honoring hospice veterans for everything from an act of courage in combat to aiding fellow veterans in their community.
For Fred, the recovery of his medals and papers filled him with pride and gave him a measure of closure at the end of life, while the ceremony itself shone a bright light on his war service. Elaine commented, “Being a veteran always inspired his honor and dignity.”
“Every war veteran has a unique story,” Joe says. “Our partnership with We Honor Veterans makes it possible to let hospice veterans in New York City know their service has not gone unnoticed, and that it is greatly appreciated.”
At Fred’s bedside, Joe ended the medals ceremony as he always does: with one final salute from one veteran to another.
* Names have been changed for privacy.