In October 2015, staff at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center received a call from a Veteran’s wife. Her husband, a Purple Heart recipient, had passed away. For a while he had lived in the medical center’s Community Living Center (CLC). The widow said her husband had loved his time at VA. She was so grateful that she requested the funeral procession take him past his beloved VA hospital one last time.
CLC nurses sent a message to the staff explaining that CLC employees planned to use their lunchtime to stand at the road while the procession passed. Nearly 100 of their colleagues joined them. Some held American flags as the procession passed. Administrative staff at the annex a mile away were also on the procession route to pay their respects.
Social Worker Martinie Franks said, “the grief in the mourners passing by, but the awe as well, that this was done in honor of their loved one. I didn’t know the Veteran, but it didn’t matter. Honoring that person and their family was everything. I’m holding back tears just remembering how powerful a moment it was.”
Word spread of the spontaneous response. Local mortuaries now reach out with requests from other families. Mortuary staff contact the medical center’s chief of police, who lets staff know of a Veteran funeral procession that will pass at lunchtime. The Facilities Management Service (FMS) team brings the facility’s American and service flags for the nearly quarter mile of volunteers to wave.
“I participate whenever I can because it is important to me,” said Leanne Duncan, an administrative officer. “It is very humbling to stand out there. I get chills and tears every time I do it.”
Community takes note
The local community took note.
“Many people ask what we’re doing when we hold the flags by the road. When I explain that it is respect for our fallen Veteran heroes, they are very impressed and say they are glad that the VA does this for the fallen,” said Lance Cravens, an engineer.
“VA globally participates in many big events and gives so much back to the communities we serve, but often it is the little things in life that matter the most,” said Vicki West, a nurse. “The staff standing at the roadside holding our flag in honor of a Veteran might be a small thing, but is appreciated and recognized by those driving by.”
Veterans’ family members are grateful for the support, said local funeral home workers.
“The families have all said they get goosebumps, feel a sense of honor and pride and are appreciative of how thoughtful and caring the staff are to provide such an honor,” said Monica Woolem.
Carla Cross echoed the sentiment.
“Families are so grateful that the employees take the time to honor their loved one. Many can’t speak without crying.”
The events could not happen without the FMS staff. It has a trailer that holds the flags and is ready at a moment’s notice.
“I will proudly stand and display our national colors and military service flags for our fallen for as long as I am able,” said Tim Lowe, safety officer. “The team is on site early and they always have the flags ready for our employees and volunteers to hold.”
What started as an impulsive reaction of love and respect has grown into a treasured practice, said Rhonda Smith, a human resources staff member.
“They were there for us. Let us be there for them.”
Angela Smith is a public affairs officer at the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, MO.