MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 9th. This is WORLD Radio, and we’re glad you joined us today. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: honoring veterans in their final days.
According to the Veterans Administration, more than a half million veterans die each year. Some die without friends or family nearby. One veteran in San Antonio has made it his calling to make sure no veteran dies alone.
Here’s WORLD reporter Todd Vician.
SOUND: [Keys, shutting car door]
TODD VICIAN, REPORTER: Hal Smarkola is a 75-year-old veteran of three wars. When he gets in his car, he goes through a routine.
SMARKOLA: Keys, wallet, phone.
It’s almost like a pre-flight checklist he went through in Vietnam. His mission these days? Spend time with fellow veterans who are dying.
Smarkola began visiting veterans in hospice care in 2017. That was shortly before Peggy, his wife of 47 years, died following a lengthy battle with cancer.
SMARKOLA: When Peggy died, I just wanted to die the day after her.
Instead of focusing on his loss, Smarkola found new purpose…talking at a time and place when most Americans don’t know what to say. He helps families deal with a coming loss by telling stories, saying thank you, and listening.
Mary Thorsby has run Abode Contemplative Care for the Dying since 2019. She comes alongside Smarkola when he’s visiting veterans and families in one of the home’s three bedrooms. She’s seen families deal with dying well and others ignore the obvious.
THORSBY: There's, you know, family members who are in denial, and they don't want mom to know that she's dying. And they'll tell hospice, you know, “She doesn't know that she's dying. So don't tell her.” But then hospice will get alone with mom and mom will say, “listen, the family doesn’t know I’m dying, so don't tell them, they won't be able to handle it.”
Thorsby and her team try and bridge that divide.
THORSBY: And so we tried very hard to meet people where they are, and do our best to help them understand that this is happening, and it’s so important to spend your last stretch of time with those you love.
Veterans aren’t the only guests at Abode. But the San Antonio metro area is home to more than 156,000 veterans. So, many of the guests at Abode have served their country in uniform at least some time in their lives.
Edwin Sasek is Abode’s founder.
SASEK: We always knew there was a need for veterans, as there is a need for anybody who's dying, to have a place to stay at the end of life. We didn't focus on veterans as a subgroup or as a group, but they're a part of the community in a big way. So in the years that we've been open, in many ways, we've been reaching out to veterans organizations to let them know that we're here.
Studies show most people prefer to die at home, but families often find it difficult to care for a loved one in their final days. But being cared for isn’t the same as feeling appreciated, something Smarkola and the staff and volunteers at Abode strive to offer.
Beverly Toomala is a hospice nurse, veteran, and president of Abode’s board of directors. She sees a pattern among the people she serves. Nearly all question their self worth. Death and dying provides an opportunity for someone to help answer those questions.
TUOMALA: What I see the most is they’re very proud of their service and that you recognize that. It may not have been a big part of their life, but the fact that at the end we recognize that. A lot of end of life is reflection, and you know “What did I do with my life? What good did I do?” When we bring it up, they're like, “Wow, yeah, I did something.”
Smarkola often helps make connections between veterans and their loved ones who don’t understand what it was like in uniform. He’s gotten World War II veterans to share stories they had long forgotten and that families had never heard. He’s spurred a reunion between a dying veteran with a duffle bag full of regrets and a daughter the veteran hadn’t seen in five years simply by telling him, “I love you.”
Abode’s director, Thorsby, gets teary eyed when reflecting on the reunion that nobody thought would happen before the veteran died.
THORSBY: This is kind of the magical thing that happens here all the time. I like to say we change people’s lives even at the end of their lives.
Smarkola recently visited 90-year-old Freddy Tidwell, also an Air Force veteran. Tidwell was lying in bed covered by a Dallas Cowboys blanket and surrounded by his family. Smarkola introduced himself, made small talk, and then moved close to Tidwell’s head. Then he said what he’s told many veterans in their final days - or even last few minutes.
SMARKOLA: I just want to say thank you, for your military service. You've got an amazing family, but they have to realize that you're going on an amazing journey. As you begin it, you’re free to go. You're dismissed from the Air Force, you're free to go.
Smarkola also presents a small American flag to every veteran he visits. A flag just like the one his dad wore on his uniform when he was almost killed in World War II. And the flag Smarkola flies outside his home’s front door now.
SMARKOLA: This is the flag you raised your right hand…
He doesn’t perform this mission for praise, but Smarkola never loses sight of its importance.
SMARKOLA: I would love when I die or are starting to go, I'd love for somebody in the military to come in and just say, “You did really good. I'm proud of you.”
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Todd Vician in San Antonio, Texas.
REICHARD: To read more about one man’s mission honoring our dying veterans, look for Todd’s story in the November 4th issue of WORLD Magazine.
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