The final salute
One man’s mission to honor dying veterans
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Hal Smarkola was eating lunch with three friends on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio when his phone rang. It was a warm, mid-September Friday, and he recognized the number right away. Mary Thorsby, executive director of a nearby home for people on hospice care, asked if he could come over before the day’s end. A 90-year-old veteran had arrived the night before, she said, and he didn’t have long to live.
Smarkola, a 75-year-old veteran of three wars, finished lunch and drove home to put on his uniform. His dark blue T-shirt declared “Air Force DD-214 Alumni,” the number a reference to the form all veterans get when they’re discharged. The words “Air Force Retired” adorned his trademark baseball cap. Smarkola then headed off on his mission: to meet a military veteran before he died.
Between 20 and 25 percent of Americans now dying each year have served in the military, according to figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many veterans don’t share details of their battles with family members. Veterans like Smarkola share experiences from their time in uniform that help start conversations. Those can lead to never-before-heard memories from dying veterans.
Abode Contemplative Care for the Dying is a typical one-story house on a residential street lined with towering, full-canopied live oaks. Except for the long U-shaped driveway and six parking spots out front, passersby might mistake it for any single-family home in south Texas. Inside, staff and volunteers provide a place for guests to die in comfort, surrounded by family and friends.
“We are extensions of our guests’ families,” Thorsby said. “So we don’t consider ourselves a hospice. We’re not. We are simply a residential home where people who are on hospice can come and be, and we take care of them just as we would our family members.”
When Hal Smarkola arrived at Abode, Thorsby took him down the hall to the “peach room.” There, Freddy Tidwell lay in a bed, his eyes closed.
Tidwell’s wife of 38 years, Jerri, sat on the chair next to the bed. Two of Tidwell’s daughters and two grandchildren crowded onto a nearby couch. Like Smarkola, Tidwell had served in the Air Force, putting in 26 years before retiring to San Antonio in 1977. Service to country ran in his family: His father served in World War I, and his family beamed with pride as they showed Smarkola pictures on a cell phone of Tidwell’s father and brothers in uniform.
The room was quiet despite the number of people squeezed inside. The only sound came from a TV hanging on a wall. Smarkola made his way around the room, introducing himself in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. He joked about wanting to return to the Air Force if they took 75-year-olds and then asked in a louder voice why one of Tidwell’s family was wearing a Houston Rockets T-shirt. He got laughs and an “Oh, yeah!” from one of Tidwell’s daughters when he suggested her dad was a kidder and that he and Smarkola would have been good friends.
Smarkola then sighed. “Alrighty,” he said and moved in close to the head of the bed.
“You know, Freddy, we’ve never met,” he said. “I just want to say thank you for your military service. Speaking for all the veterans here and everybody that went through all the different bases here to say, thank you for answering your country’s call.”
Tidwell’s eyes never opened, but he occasionally answered “yes” to questions from his daughter about past assignments. Smarkola held up a miniature flag in a clear bag for the family to see before laying it on the hospital bed next to Tidwell’s side.
“This is the flag that you put your life on the line for, to defend,” he said. “All I want to do is say carry on. Carry on and rest in peace and enjoy the transition. You’ve got an amazing family. They have to realize that you’re going on an amazing journey. And as you begin it, you’re free to go. You’re dismissed from the Air Force, you’re free to go.”
THE VA HAS A MANDATE to provide hospice services to all veterans even if they can’t prove a service-connected disability. Some veterans get care in VA facilities, but many others spend their final days in private facilities at VA expense. Through the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s “We Honor Veterans” program, volunteers visit dying veterans to thank them for their service.
Smarkola isn’t officially part of that program. His own volunteer mission began with a personal connection.
In 2017, the husband of a retired senior master sergeant who had served in Smarkola’s unit asked if he would visit his wife at Abode before she died. At the time, Smarkola was dealing with his own pending loss: Peggy, his wife of 47 years, was receiving hospice care at home at the end of a 25-year battle with seven different cancers.
It was his most difficult assignment, Smarkola told me. “I missed the course at Penn State when they said, ‘OK, all those wanting to know how to take care of your spouse when they’re dying at home, over here.’”
But talking to veterans came naturally, and Abode founder Edwin Sasek, who was Peggy’s hospice chaplain, asked Smarkola if he would return to the facility and visit other dying veterans.
On one visit in December 2021, Thorsby asked Smarkola and his friend and pilot, Ray Hoese, to talk with Willard Mueller, a 97-year-old World War II Army Air Corps veteran. Smarkola had flown in F-4s as an observer in Vietnam, so he and Mueller had an instant connection. When they got to his room, Smarkola and Hoese headed to opposite sides of the bed.
“I went up one side and he went up the other side, and said ‘Hey, I hear you’re a B-26 pilot,’” Smarkola recalls.
“Yep,” Mueller said.
“Hey, good airplane,” Smarkola said. “Did you get shot at?”
“Oh yeah, shot at.” The frail great-grandfather then shared stories his family had never heard, and before Smarkola and Hoese left the room, they had joined in a family photograph.
Another time, Smarkola became the catalyst for a family reunification. Kennard Vandergrift lay dying at Abode in January 2022. Three of his adult children had come from across the country to be with him. But his daughter in Florida didn’t make the trip. She’d had a falling-out with her father, according to Thorsby, and they didn’t ever expect to see each other again.
“We sat with him and talked to him, and I kept telling him, ‘I don’t even know you, but I love you,’” Smarkola said. “‘You’re my brother. You’re my military brother.’”
After Smarkola left the room, the crotchety 88-year-old retired soldier asked Thorsby to bring his cell phone. She held the phone to Vandergrift’s ear, and he left a message on his daughter’s voicemail: “Julie, this is your dad. I’m dying, and I love you,” Vandergrift said.
After listening to her dad’s message, Julie bought a one-way ticket to San Antonio. She barely left his side, sleeping in the room with him until the end.
“I like to say we change people’s lives, even at the end of their lives,” Thorsby said, tearing up at the memory of the reunion. “So he had a beautiful passing. And now Julie can live the rest of her life knowing that he loved her.”
AS RECENTLY as a century ago, most Americans died at home. But as the dying process moved into institutions such as hospitals and long-term care facilities, taking care of someone at home became less common even though studies show that’s what most people prefer.
Most guests stay at Abode for a week or more, up to three months. But some don’t get care until it’s too late and die just a day or two after arriving. Army veteran Robert Edwards, 87, arrived in late February 2023, and Thorsby asked Smarkola to come as soon as he could.
“We walked in, and I said, ‘I don’t even know your name, but I love you so much on behalf of the military community,’” Smarkola recalled. “I said, ‘You’re totally free. You are dismissed. You don’t owe anybody anything.’”
Then Smarkola rendered a sharp hand-salute, and as best he could, Edwards returned it. And by the time Smarkola and Thorsby walked to the end of the bed, Edwards was dead.
Smarkola says all the dying vets return his salute if they can.
“They all pride themselves on their salute,” Smarkola said. “They try to snap off the best salute they could ever do … even though it pains them.”
Smarkola gave the same salute to his own wife outside their house as the funeral home staff took her body to the mortuary.
“When Peggy died, I just wanted to die the day after her,” he said. “Why don’t You take me, Lord?” he thought at the time. “I don’t have anybody. I don’t have any family, no mom, no dad, no kids. Nobody.’”
Today, though, Smarkola finds himself serving as other people’s somebody. In May, he snapped a final salute to a veteran in Abode. Two days later he commissioned a young man into the Army after his graduation from Texas A&M University.
“It doesn’t take a brick to hit me in the head to know why God wants me still here,” Smarkola said with a smile. “I said goodbye to one fella after a beautiful career. I said hello to another fella. He’s now an Army Ranger. So that’s why I’m here. And that’s why when Mary says, ‘Hey, we have a vet coming,’ I’ll be there.”
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