Saluting service

Many nursing homes have "secret heroes" among their census, and chances are, many people don't have any idea what they’ve done. Most war veterans don’t talk very much about their time in active duty, and that can lead to challenges later in life, especially if post-traumatic stress, dementia, or both are factors.

The 2016 OPTIMA Award winner, the Texas Land Board State Veterans Homes (TLBVH), has added special events to help veterans embrace their military experiences and foster their emotional well-being.

Veterans of WWII and the Korean War are used to keeping silent about their military experiences. "It just wasn't something soldiers talked about with outsiders," says Kathy Johanns, program administrator for the TLBVH. But, growing older can affect a veteran deeply and can reintroduce powerful memories and survivor’s guilt that have remained long-suppressed.

Over the next few years, many Vietnam-era veterans will reach their 70s and will begin to enter senior care. Their experiences with war—and their memories of them—could be quite different from veterans of previous wars, including how their brains process post-traumatic stress, Johanns says. “The average age of a WWII soldier was 27, but the average age of a Vietnam soldier was only 19. When you’re 27, you have some life experience behind you as an adult and can rationalize that you’re going to be OK when you get home. But at 19, you usually can’t do that.” Society's reaction to war has a great effect, too, she adds. "WWII veterans came home as heroes, but Vietnam veterans were treated like dirt."

One way to engage veterans is through a public acknowledgement of their service, like the medal-pinning ceremony at Clyde W. Cosper Texas State Veterans Home in Bonham, Texas. One at a time, every veteran resident is honored with a medal relating to his or her branch of service and a personal thanks for their services and sacrifices. It’s a welcome home that most of them didn’t receive all those years ago. "Memories from the war experience can be powerful and heart-wrenching, especially near the end of life," says Johanns, whose father served in Vietnam. “Those returning from Vietnam were spat upon. But here, when each of them wears the ribbon, it shows them comrades are near.”

The TLBVH also holds an honor ceremony, complete with color guard and flags from all military branches. The administrators invite all residents and families to the event, held a few times a year.

A local veteran's group conducts the solemn event honoring service members lost or killed in action, including a flag-folding ceremony and the playing of "Taps."

As each branch of the military is called out, residents who served in that branch will stand and salute, even if they need help to stand up.

One of the residents quietly watching the honor ceremony is L.B. Kirby (left), the most decorated living veteran in Texas. Kirby, who turns 92 later this year, was awarded seven Bronze Stars, two bronze Arrowheads and a Purple Heart for his service in WWII. But, like many veterans of his era, he never told anyone in his family about his military accolades until more than 60 years after the war.

Most veterans are men—for now. TLBVH’s Bonham site has four female veterans, three of whom served as military nurses. In the coming decades, many more veterans will be female and may process their experiences and their care needs differently.

Read the accompanying coverage of TLBVH's OPTIMA Award-winning program in these related articles:

An honored memory

Behavioral intervention for veterans: Words that work

The lost generations [BLOG]

Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles , Clinical