Last Salute Honors Veterans, Underscores Their Struggles

Last Salute Honors Veterans, Underscores Their Struggles
As part of the Committed to Veterans program supported by the Arkansas Hospice Foundation, veterans are honored with “The Last Salute” by being draped with a U.S. flag on their departure from an inpatient center.

Sometimes a simple gesture means so much.

November is the month in which America officially honors her veterans, and the tributes range from basic "thank yous" for serving to Veterans Day parades and ceremonies.

As it does with all of us, time eventually claims those who served, and sometimes our former military men and women pass quietly, almost unnoticed, almost forgotten.

However there is a program that ensures that departed veterans, regardless of family or economic status, are honored for their sacrifice and sent on their final journey with a meaningful gesture of respect and gratitude.

The Last Salute is a program adopted and funded by the Arkansas Hospice Foundation, with a gift from a former veteran, in which deceased veterans are honored with a simple ceremony as their remains are taken from the premises.

"We do have many veterans who don’t have money for funerals and they worry about what happens when they die," said philanthropist Renie Rule, the foundation’s executive director.

"So maybe this is one way we can assure them ‘We got ya. We got ya.’"

Deceased veterans are draped in a specially made American flag and honored with the playing of Taps, which brings hospice work to a standstill and people, sometimes even the wheelchair bound, to their feet. It’s a respectful sendoff to those who gave much and were willing to sacrifice all, Rule said.

"It’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen," Rule said. "Men and women who have been in bed for days will come to the door or get up out of their wheelchair. Every person in the hospice has a hand over their heart."

The Last Salute not only is a meaningful gesture, it can serve to reassure other veterans that, when their time comes, they too will not be forgotten.

"I can’t help but think somewhere in their minds they also see that’s what will happen to them. They too will leave here with dignity," Rule said.

Veterans face higher than average rates of homelessness, unemployment and suicide, while many struggle with combat-related disabilities or post traumatic stress. Generations of service men and women bear their burdens silently, unwilling or unable to speak about their experiences.

Rule noted that veterans comprise one of every four deaths in the United States.

"What often happens in the hospice associations or veterans hospitals … if a veteran dies, many of them don’t have family or don’t have very many resources," Rule said. "It’s a sad situation with our veterans throughout the country and not in just in Arkansas."

From veterans hospitals around the country to the Mayo Clinic, Last Salute or Final Salute programs are in place to say a final thank you to those who bore their burdens on behalf of their nation. With a gift from Russellville philanthropist and veteran Harvey Young, a former school superintendent, the Arkansas Hospice Foundation has funded its Last Salute for close to a year, under the umbrella of its Committed to Veterans program.

The flags are specially made in Washington D.C. and already on hand, and inpatient personnel are trained to carry out the Last Salute ceremony. When next of kin can be notified, families are often part of the ceremony.

"You can imagine it’s very meaningful when you watch this family walking out, pushing their son or daughter, with this flag draped over them instead of going out the back door with a sheet draped over them," Rule said.

Rule said the program has yet to reach Arkansas’ veterans hospitals but she hopes it will continue to grow and expand and serve as another way to enlighten people about the needs of America’s former service members.

"To us it’s all a part of retraining at least our small part of society to learn about veterans, how they are at the end of their lives, struggling at the end of their lives with different things than most people are," Rule said.