“High upon a hilltop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, there’s an old VA hospital where the flag is waving still.” That is the first line of the song, “Come on America,” that Shirley Crecelius wrote 25 years ago when her husband, Army Veteran Paul Crecelius, was in the Intensive Care Unit at the Jack. C Montgomery VA Medical Center.
Paul was recently readmitted and this time Shirley decided to share the song with those who inspired it.
Sitting at Paul’s bedside in his hospital room, Shirley held Paul’s hand and retold the events that inspired her song.
It was merely a sore throat that brought Paul to the VA more than two decades ago, but that sore throat turned out to be laryngeal cancer, a rare cancer in which malignant cells grow in the larynx, or voice box, which required emergency surgery to remove.
While he was recovering in the Intensive Care Unit, Paul received news that his mother had died.
“The whole situation was just heart-wrenching,” said Shirley. “He was already devastated that he was going to have a hole in his neck and then to find out his mother passed on top of that, it was just so painful for him.
“Everyone here has taken such good care of him,” she said. “I am so very grateful for the way the staff treats Veterans with such dignity and respect. If we need something, we get it with a smile. Everyone is so warm and compassionate. I remember looking up to this hospital and I could see the top of the building above the trees with the flag waving. I thought about Paul’s experience and the other Veterans and I just started singing. The next thing I knew, I had written this song,” she said, pointing to a piece of lined notebook paper in the song book resting open on her lap.
It would be a difficult recovery for Paul, but in time he would learn to speak with the use of a small plastic device inserted into the hole in his throat.
Paul, a trucker who served proudly in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper and mechanic from 1967-1970, loved the time he spent serving his country. He saw driving as service, too, just a different kind.
“He is such a hard worker,” said Shirley. “He worked for 24 years straight and never took a sick day after his surgery. He did have some limitations after his laryngectomy, but his company loved him, and they had a lot of faith in him.”
Over the years, Paul had been entrusted to haul items such as the mobile Vietnam Wall, Wreaths Across America, Veteran headstones and materials to the Gulf coast during Hurricane Katrina.
“When his company found out he had to retire because he was sick, they had such a big blowout for him. They always called him the old dinosaur,” Shirley said.
Last December, Paul and Shirley’s life once again changed. Paul came to the hospital with what he believed was a kidney stone. They were shocked when they found out that he was in heart and kidney failure due to cancer, which has consumed most of his organs. Paul endured emergency surgery in the private sector on December 11, 2018, and then a full surgery to remove several organs on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, he requested to be transported back to the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center to continue his care.
“It is hard to explain, but Paul just feels a comfort and assurance here at the VA,” said Shirley. “We see so many familiar faces and we know that the staff and administration here have an affinity for Veterans and understand their needs. We love this place and to us it symbolizes humanity because the people here are the way we should all be.”
Shirley and Paul, whose anniversary is August 11, have been married over 30 years. The couple says they are counting each day as a blessing and trusting in their faith to bring them through these tough times.
Upon request, she sang the song in Paul’s hospital room of the Palliative Care Unit while he watched her in admiration. Shirley says she does not consider herself a singer, but she is proud of her song writing and says Paul loves to hear her sing.
“Paul is a phenomenal man,” Shirley says with a smile as she squeezes his hand. “He has always encouraged me. He is gentle and kind and really is my best friend. We laugh together, and we cry together. I would just like to say that I have been proud to be part of his life,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I ask God to let us have more time because I don’t want it to be over anytime soon, but I tell Paul that I would have rather been with him for the time that we’ve had than with anybody else.”
Paul responded with a smile as he squeezed Shirley’s hand, mouthing the words “I love you,” to which Shirley responded, “I know you do, and I love you, I really do.”
***As this story was being put together for publishing, we learned that Paul Crecelius died over the weekend. He was 68.
We are honored to serve Veterans and their families at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center. We are humbled and appreciative that the Crecelius family would share their experience, song and story with us. They are a wonderful example of the amazing families that we have the opportunity to care for. Thank you for trusting us with your care Paul and Shirley, it is our privilege to serve you.
Tiffani Mathews is a public affairs intern at the Jack. C Montgomery VA Medical Center.