DUBLIN -- Anyone walking down the second floor hallway of Building 13 at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center a little after noon Wednesday would have witnessed something unusual.
A small group of people -- some dressed identically in black vests, white shirts and dark pants -- surrounded a gurney draped with an American flag. They proceeded with it solemnly down the hallway, with one person at the front slowly tapping a gong to set the pace for the procession.
They were practicing for the center’s new Honors Escort program, in which veterans who die at the hospital will get a ceremonial escort for the removal of the body. Previously, staff members would just wheel out the body.
The center is among the first VA hospitals in the country to begin the program, which was developed in Reno, Nevada. Dublin volunteers went there recently to get trained on the procedure.
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Les Black, a volunteer, Vietnam veteran and lead escort, led the training for about a dozen staff members and volunteers.
“You are lucky to be able to do this,” he told them. “Hold that pride in your heart.”
Black explained how events would unfold when someone dies. It generally happens a couple of times a week at the sprawling facility, which has 340 beds, including a nursing home and a hospice unit. Most of the deaths come from the hospice unit.
First, the family will be offered the escort, which they can decline. If they accept, a team will be assembled as quickly as possible.
Nurses inside the room will drape the body with a flag. Then the escort team, wearing the black vests, will take over as the body is pushed into the hallway.
They’ll proceed slowly down the hallway led by a hospital police officer on a Segway, followed by the gong ringer, the escort lead, nurses pushing the gurney, then a chaplain in the rear with the veteran’s family.
They’ll go that way all the way to the morgue or the funeral home vehicle outside if it is available when the body is removed. The rehearsal also included the procedure for getting on and off the elevator.
Sarah NeSmith, an Army and Air Force veteran, is a secretary at the hospital. When the call went out for someone to coordinate the new program, she immediately volunteered for the job. She and another volunteer, Calvin McNeal, went to Reno for the first training session offered, in which five other hospitals participated.
She said the idea originated in Reno about a year ago when a veteran was standing in a hallway there as a deceased veteran was being wheeled out. He saw people talking casually as the veteran went by and thought it wasn’t a respectful way to send out someone who had served the country in war.
The Reno hospital formed the protocol for the escort and is now offering the training to all VAs. Hospitals are not required to do it, but NeSmith believes the idea will eventually spread.
Many of the volunteers so far are veterans, as well as hospital employees, but NeSmith said anyone can volunteer. A primary requirement is that they need to be able to get to the hospital quickly. She’s already had a flood of volunteers, but more are needed because the service will be provided around the clock.
They began offering the escorts June 1 and have already done two.
“The families said it really meant a lot to them for us to honor their loved one like we did,” she said.
Maryalice Morro, the Dublin VA’s new executive director and a former Navy nurse, spoke briefly to the volunteers who were training.
“I think what you are doing is just a great step,” she said to the nurses who were a part of the practice. “It brings closure for the veteran’s family but also for you guys who have become that veteran’s family.”
Volunteer training will continue weekly. Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Voluntary Service Chief Dean Swan at Aldean.Swan@va.gov or call 478-272-1210, ext. 2729.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.