Faced with a Formidable Foe, Capital Caring Health Still Celebrates Veterans

No doubt about it, this period of pandemic has been a long, hard slog for everyone. But for those with advanced, life-limiting illness, COVID-19 has posed special hardships. And it’s particularly challenging for the veterans in our care, who often face the added burden of service-related illnesses and disabilities, severe chronic conditions, and depression.

With strategic foresight, Capital Caring Health (CCH) has risen to meet the new demands imposed by this powerful new foe. While our efforts extend across the board, CCH’s re-imagined initiatives to care for our veterans—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—are a prime example of our focus on “doing the right thing,” COVID or not.

Where Every Day is A Veteran’s Day    

For more than 40 years, the care, support, and recognition of veterans has been part of Capital Caring Health’s mission. From help and assistance securing the benefits they have earned to matching patients with “battle buddies”—current and former members of the military who volunteer their time to support and encourage colleagues in our care—we’ve taken that pledge to heart.

Perhaps the most visible indication of that commitment lies in our comprehensive, branch-specific ceremonies to honor those who served.

Unmatched by any other organization we know of, our celebrations typically last an hour and involve from two to 10 or more active or retired, uniformed, military members from the patient’s service branch. Ceremonies include the National Anthem, the song associated with the patient’s service— “Anchors Aweigh” for Navy, “The Caisson Song” for Army, and so on—along with a tribute featuring highlights of his or her life, drawn from personal interviews conducted by specially-trained CCH volunteers. Formalities conclude with a presentation of gifts emblazoned with branch insignia, challenge coins, pins, and other tokens of appreciation as the patient, family members, and volunteers mingle and enjoy refreshments.

Of course, that was all pre-coronavirus. And while COVID-19 has definitely rained on our parade, it hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm or ability to maintain tradition.

“When the pandemic first hit, we made a conscious decision to continue honoring the former military members in our care,” says Lt. Col. David Benhoff (retired, USMC) and CCH’s Veterans Health and Support Services Liaison. “So many are Vietnam Veterans who never received any welcome or the recognition they deserved when they returned home, unlike vets from most of America’s other conflicts. We figured we owed it to them. The military doesn’t quit when times get tough, so neither will we.”

So Benhoff and Katherine Knoble, CCH’s Manager, Community and Volunteer Engagement, regrouped.

Changing Approaches for Changing Times

“For safety’s sake, we knew we couldn’t conduct the ceremonies in person anymore,” says Knoble. “So we had to get creative.”

Beginning in June 2020, recognition ceremonies went virtual, with pre-recorded anthems. Tribute speeches and ceremonial spotlights, formerly done in person, were also online, although patients still receive their ceremonial keepsakes and other military-themed gifts.  The virtual ceremonies were created by Capital Caring Health’s Military Volunteer Team and can be found on the CCH YouTube channel.

But Knoble, who is actively involved in military-affiliated social media sites, worried it wasn’t enough and lacked the human touch so essential to hospice and palliative care. So she sent out an SOS.

“I asked for help with service-related goods and items that would be comforting to former military members nearing the end of their lives,” she says. “And I was overwhelmed by the response.”

From Colorado to California, New York to Alaska, gifts started pouring in. Handmade lap-robes embroidered with service insignia, knitted prayer shawls, crocheted tissue-box covers, coasters and more—all packed up and mailed at the volunteer’s own expense—honor and recognize those who sacrificed so much for the nation.

“Our vets gave a lot and missed out on a lot just to keep us all safe,” says Tracy, a volunteer from Missouri, who crochets and recruited fellow crafters to help. “Doing this warms my heart. I am more than happy to try and brighten someone else’s day—especially now—by giving back.”

And it’s not just individuals who are pitching in. Trader Joe’s contributes free bouquets to present at each recognition ceremony.

Celebrating Individuals, Celebrating Communities

Despite the coronavirus, Knoble estimates that the CCH volunteer engagement team coordinates approximately 20 individual ceremonies each month, about the same as before. Ceremonies are conducted throughout CCH’s service area, which extends from the Maryland suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties through the District of Columbia and as far south as Richmond, Virginia. Altogether, she has an army of about 100 military members who volunteer their time to help.

“Before COVID, CCH conducted group ceremonies on Veterans Day at long-term care facilities, independent/assisted living centers, adult daycare centers, and other locales where veterans were present, whether or not they had an affiliation with CCH,” Knoble explains.  “We viewed it as a community service, and typically reached between 600 to 900 individuals through these events each year.”

This Veterans Day, like just about everything else in 2020, is different. Undeterred, Benhoff, Knoble, and the Military Volunteer Team outdid themselves.

“Viewing the restraints imposed by COVID, we contacted the VA and Pentagon, where we already have established connections, and asked for their help,” says Benhoff.

The result is a 19-minute virtual Veterans Day Video Presentation created by CCH Military Volunteer Team, with a message from Maj. Gen. Peter Aylward, US Army (ret.), director of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. CCH has made the video available to anyone who wants it, nationwide, here.


Beyond Veterans Day

Pomp and circumstance, while stirring to the soul, only go so far. As COVID-19 continues to rage, CCH has made other adjustments in how we care for and comfort our patients, veterans and non-veterans alike.

For those with newly limited income and supports, we now regularly provide nutritionist-planned meals to nurture frail and ailing bodies. We’ve increased telehealth and video visits to minimize contact and reduce coronavirus exposure, potentially deadly to patients with life-limiting conditions. And true to our non-profit mission, we’ve welcomed into our care those who could not pay because of insurance coverage issues or other financial reasons.

But that’s only part of the story. As the veteran’s recognition ceremonies demonstrate, CCH’s holistic approach extends to caring for a person’s mental and emotional needs, as well as the physical. From virtual pet and art/music therapy, to personal cards, calls, and Zoom visits from volunteers, we work to uplift sagging spirits, on Veterans Day and every day.

To view some of the recognition ceremonies, and the many items contributed, click here. To find out how you can help, visit capitalcaring.org,  or contact Katherine Knoble directly at kknoble@capitalcaring.org.