Before Hero’s Welcome volunteers meet with Veterans admitted to the Tucson Arizona VA Medical Center, they go to the patient cafeteria and grab a cup of coffee to go over their day’s objectives and remind themselves why they are here.
Then, when satisfied with their plan, the volunteers set out to meet with the newly-admitted patients. Dick Horton, a Hero’s Welcome volunteer, walks into a hospital room. The man in the bed is Charles Goldberg, an Air Force Veteran, with his wife by his side.
Horton starts the conversation, “I’m a Vet, just like you are.”
Veterans serving Veterans is the driving force behind the Hero’s Welcome program. The program helps newly-admitted Veterans feel welcome in the hospital and ensures they know what resources are available to them during their stay. It is the first Veteran-led volunteer program at Tucson, tracing its roots back a couple of years.
Dick Nelson, a Vietnam Veteran and Hero’s Welcome volunteer, recalls visiting inpatients to ask about their dietary preferences. He noticed that the other Veterans shared their military experiences with him and had questions about VA resources and services. Soon after, thanks to the hard work of staff members and volunteers, an all-volunteer team of Veterans was created to welcome admitted patients daily. Thus, the Hero’s Welcome program was born.
“I do this because I developed a real affection for my buddies in the field. That’s why I want to do something to give back to fellow Veterans as much as I can,” said Nelson.
While conducting their visits, Hero’s Welcome volunteers try to ensure Veterans are getting the best care possible.
“We find out how they’re doing on a scale from one to 10. If it goes below an eight we’re going to inquire why and then we’re going to resolve that issue right away,” said Brad Lang, Hero’s Welcome team leader and volunteer.
For Lang, he and his fellow volunteers are operating on the frontlines making sure the patient’s needs are meet. Lang says the program is about being selfless and looking out for his fellow Veteran.
“We act as liaisons with the patient advocate office – seeing the Veterans on the hospital bed, making sure that they get the quality care that they deserve,” Lang said.
All the Hero’s Welcome volunteers are Veterans, which gives the program a unique edge.
“We won’t accept any non-Veteran volunteers in our program. The only reason is because we believe, whole-heartedly, that a Vet will talk to another Vet and say things that he won’t say to a civilian,” said Hal Wilson, Hero’s Welcome assistant team leader and volunteer.
That idea is the crux behind the Hero’s Welcome Program. Wilson emphasizes the program is designed and centered on serving the Veteran. Hero’s Welcome volunteers also work directly with the nurses responsible for overseeing patient care.
“We see ourselves as, not only an advocate for the patient, but an arm of the nurse and the nurse manager in those units. If there’s anything we can do to relieve the nurses, we do that,” Wilson said.
While the attending nurses do their best to address the needs of the patients, the Hero’s Welcome volunteers strive to ensure their stay at the hospital is as pleasant as possible.
“Its such a seamless process with how they help,” said Donald Crowley II, registered nurse at the Tucson VA. “If someone needs hearing aids, a back scratcher, a book, a blanket; they get it. A lot of the times I don’t even know it until the patient says that they were grateful for the service,”
The Hero’s Welcome volunteers provide what some staff see as a sense of understanding to the Veteran patients that others might not always provide.
“Sometimes they have families who are further away and don’t have a chance to come visit them. I’ve seen a lot of happiness brought into their lives with just a simple book or maybe they forgot to bring something and the Hero’s Welcome can provide that for them,” said Trysha Hicks, a nursing student at the Tucson VA.
“It gives you a feeling of relaxation that you’re talking to somebody that has gone through stuff, been through stuff; it helps ease your mind,” said James Vah, an Army Veteran who served between 1969 and 1970. Vah says there is a sense of camaraderie between Veterans; they feel almost as brothers, even if they’ve never met before.
“You know that he went through basic training. You know that he had a tough drill sergeant. You know that he got yelled at. You know automatically what he did and he knows what you did,” Vah said.
At the end of a visit, Hero’s Welcome volunteers always thank the Veteran for their service. When Horton feels his work is done he will leave the room but before doing so he will say his thanks.
“I am not allowed to shake your hand,” he says to the patient. “But what I will do is salute you, and thank you for your service.”
With that, Horton salutes his fellow Veteran and leaves the room, off to visit another patient.
About the author: Luke Johnson is a public affairs specialist for VA’s Southern Arizona Health Care System.