The old Army cook and the injured artilleryman sat shooting the breeze at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
Nick Konz spent part of the 1960s in uniform, turning low-grade meat into meals for soldiers stationed in Germany.
Ray O’Brien came home “banged up” from the Korean War, prompting a discharge and a loss of military life that the 86-year-old would lament after until the day he died.
By that November day, O’Brien was suffering from vascular disease and had settled into hospice care. Still, the Libertyville man retained the loquaciousness of someone healthier as he held court from his wheelchair.
“The American Legion has the best bars,” he noted, hair gelled up by a nurse for the visitors, his right leg swollen with blood that refused to circulate.
“Depends on who’s bartending,” Konz said.
The men met as part of No Veteran Dies Alone, a program that links volunteers with vets living out their final stanza in hospice care. Volunteers like Konz, a retired Chicago meat cutter, seek to provide solace and companionship in a veteran’s last days.
“No matter what I do, it’s not going to change the outcome,” Konz said. “That person’s going to die, whether I stand on my head or try to perform a miracle.”
No Veteran Dies Alone is active in about one-third of Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide, including Hines VA Hospital near Maywood and Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, officials said.
It is a program fueled by volunteers like Konz. The way the 69-year-old Grayslake resident sees it, his life could have been very different if not for some of the veterans who came before.
“We’ll hold their hand, reassure them it’s OK to die and let them know that they’re not alone,” Konz said. “Somebody cares and appreciates what they did for us.”
Volunteers for the program, which began in 2013, provide a human touch when a veteran’s family and friends cannot be there for the end, said Dr. Stephen Holt, Lovell’s director.
“It is an act of true selflessness to comfort a patient as they take their final breath,” Holt said. “Since we began this program, no veteran has been alone in their final moments.”
During his visits, Konz learned how O’Brien came home from Korea with injuries that included post-traumatic stress disorder.
“For years, you learned never to wake him up,” his wife, Sarah O’Brien, said during one visit. “Because he’d come out swinging. He suffered from PTSD all his life, but of course we didn’t know that then.”
The couple met in 1954 as he recovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His roommate was an amputee, and O’Brien hid the man’s prosthetic leg so that he could court the 24-year-old Army dietitian instead.
“I knew he must be interested,” she recalled.
“I had to prove it to you,” he reminded her. “You do that by stealing another man’s leg!”
Konz listened as the couple recounted O’Brien’s architectural career, and how he never found that esprit de corps or sense of duty in the civilian world that he cherished in the military.
“I still love the old guys from my service days,” O’Brien said, his eyes distant with memory and vision faded from macular degeneration. “If I think about it too much, I’ll start crying right here. Many of them are not with us today.”
O’Brien returned with his bride to Korea in 1998. He was amazed that areas previously wiped clean by battle were now forested.
“Men are men,” O’Brien said. “And I think they’d rather love each other than kill each other.”
Konz said he gets to know patients while they are still lucid, so he can be a familiar presence at their side when the end approaches.
“Some people are incoherent” near death, he said. “They’ll just look right through you. But I think to myself that they recognize me.”
Konz, who also heads up a local veterans assistance commission, estimates he has helped see 25 to 30 veterans out of this world while volunteering over the past few years.
Not every passing is beatific or poignant. Konz recalls people trembling, trying to fight death, reaching and calling for people who are not there.
“Every person’s death,” he said, “is just as unique as that person’s life.”
Decked out in his American Legion cap, Konz walks the Lovell campus with casual authority while making his rounds.
Volunteers should have a level of comfort in dealing with death, avoid forcing religion on people and never make the visit about themselves, Konz said.
“Listen,” he said. “Just listen.”
There are about 30 program volunteers, but Konz said the ranks thin when patients near the end.
“A lot of people can’t deal with death,” he said, “and that’s understandable.”
Jeanette Eames deals exclusively in those final stages. At that point, the Zion woman sits with dying vets from 8 p.m. to midnight, every night she is needed.
“I’m not a great conversationalist,” the 69-year-old said, “so I work well with people who are dying and not really talking.”
She wants to share the support and care she experienced when her husband died in 2011.
Faith plays a big part in what motivates Eames, who spends some days overseeing her church parish’s food pantry.
“I birthed three children,” Eames said. “There’s a lot of pain and suffering bringing them into the world. ... There’s a lot of pain and suffering leaving this world too.”
The luckier patients have family nearby, but many don’t, Konz said.
He recalled a woman named Wilma, in the VA’s care for decades. She died without one visiting family member. Konz was there.
“The whole room was full of teddy bears and little stuffed animals,” he recalled. “From the staff.”
He theorizes that as the body expires, the brain goes into overdrive to reconcile a lifetime.
Konz sat with one man for about 18 months, a guy who in his healthier days enjoyed eating and complaining about the nurses.
He faded as death neared, but jolted into consciousness one day.
“Nick!” Konz recalled the man saying. “I need you to promise me something!”
“He says, ‘I need you to get me on the last ship!’” Konz said. “’Can you promise me that?’”
“I said, ‘Yes I can. ... I’ll make sure you get on that last ship,’” Konz said. “What else am I going to tell them, you know?”
The call for sailors to attend O’Brien’s final salute went out on the loudspeaker right after he died on the morning of Dec. 29.
The final salute is the last step in a veteran’s hospice stay at Lovell, a way for volunteers and staff to say goodbye.
“Five or six real deep breaths,” then he was gone, Konz said, trailing off as sailors filed into the nursing home where O’Brien’s wife and some of his eight children had gathered.
This time, Konz was there for the family.
“A lot of times, family members need more help than the veterans,” he said.
Sailors of all ranks in their blue working uniforms formed two lines down the hall, around the corner and out to the waiting ambulance. That’s a big turnout, Konz said. Sometimes there is only one sailor on hand for a final salute. Sometimes there are none.
Other vets who live in the nursing home watched.
“Haven’t done this in a while,” one muttered.
A red, white and blue blanket covered O’Brien’s stretcher, crocheted for ceremonies like these by a group of volunteer women known as the “happy hookers.”
Family members and staff followed the stretcher, flanked on either side by saluting sailors and Konz.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,” the Rev. Leoncio Santiago prayed near the exit, where taps played.
“Receive on his behalf the gratitude of our country,” Santiago offered.
Konz said seeing death up close helps him face the mortality shared by all.
“There’s just so many,” he said. “They all got a story.”