WWII vets in VA hospital count blessings despite loneliness
PINEVILLE, La. (BP)--A small artificial Christmas tree adorned with ornaments and Hershey's Kisses sits on the stand next to one patient's bed.
There are Christmas cards, candy and cookies, a small framed photograph of family, some plaques, as well as other personal items hanging on the wall. Lying to one side of the nightstand is a well-worn Bible.
It's homey, but it is not what either Vance Stokes or Carl Hudson, both 82, considers home.
It is a small room in the Extended Care Unit of the Pineville (La.) Veterans Administration Hospital, and while the items do provide a little distraction, they cannot hide the machines, tubes and monitors.
"I'm alone a lot of the time," Stokes said. "My favorite time of day is early in the morning. I am able to look out my window and watch the sunrise."
In the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season -– what with the shopping, the parties, the family gatherings -– too often men like Stokes and Hudson, both retired World War II Navy veterans, both Southern Baptists, spend their holidays mostly in solitude.
These veterans from the WWII generation are dying at an annual rate of 1,300 per day, according to the latest figures provided by the Veterans Administration. Only 2.5 million WWII veterans, called "America's greatest generation" are still living, the VA says.
At least 5.3 million veterans of all ages are being treated in 1,400 VA hospitals, clinics and nursing homes by 75,000 doctors and nurses. Many too often get overlooked.
It is the Christmas season, and both Stokes and Hudson would rather be home, surrounded by their families, but a collapsed lung leaves Stokes short of breath, while a major stroke makes speaking difficult for Hudson.
Neither man is physically able to venture far from their rooms, much less leave for the holidays.
"We try to provide our veterans with activities daily," said Bill Ambrose, acting public affairs officer.
"It seems there is usually plenty to do beginning with Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and for much of the Christmas season," Ambrose said. "The community plays a huge role in helping us provide for activities, but the VA does a lot to provide for these wonderful people.
"However from right before Christmas through the New Year, there is this sort of vacuum. We do our best to fill it," Ambrose said.
The staff at the VA provides outings, skits, concerts, music and different kinds of fun stuff. There is a bird arbor inside the entrance of the extended care unit where patients can watch birds frolic. There is a covered pavilion where they can sit outside for fresh air. The rooms are bright and well-kept. There is a well-lit activity room, and staff members provide lots of smiles and encouragement.
"A lot of our patients are visited by the school children in the area, homecoming queens, as well as other members of our community on Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and through the Christmas holidays," Ambrose said. "Of course, family, friends and church members are encouraged to come as well. Nothing seems to lift them up more than seeing their children and grandchildren.
"We have a chaplain who does a wonderful job with the patients, but it is just not the same as having someone you know come and see you," Ambrose said. "Anyone who has ever spent time in a hospital during the holidays knows just how tough it can be for those hospital-bound people. A brief visit does go a long way."
Stokes, a deck hand on the U.S.S. President Hayes during World War II, looks forward to visits from his wife and his pastor.
"I wouldn't mind seeing a visitor or two. Unfortunately, the only people who come to see me regularly are Georgia, my wife, who comes every day, and my pastor –- Steve Montgomery -– who comes fairly often," Stokes said.
"Occasionally, people from my church will visit, but it is usually just my wife and pastor," Stokes said. "Really, the staff here is like family. I thank God for them and appreciate what they do for me."
Stokes is no stranger to the VA hospital.
Serving on the Hayes during the war, the ship and crew saw extensive action in the Pacific as they helped to land the 2nd Marine Regiment on Guadalcanal, participated in the Rendova landing, the invasion of the Philippines, and shot down seven Japanese Kamikazes (Japanese suicide planes). At war's end, Stokes, a Mississippi native, was sent to San Diego and then Algiers, just outside of New Orleans, upon his return to the states.
It was while at Algiers he came down with a cold.
"I fought it for six weeks before I finally went to the Navy Hospital in New Orleans," Stokes said. "While I was in the hospital, they discovered I had TB (tuberculosis). I was sent to the old VA Hospital here in February of 1946."
The doctors gave him nine months of bed rest and it was another four months before he was finally discharged from the Navy. It wasn't long afterwards he met his wife, who was from Louisiana, and the couple married and settled down just a mile from the hospital.
Not long after his marriage, Stokes began going to church with his wife.
"During the war, I knew how to pray, and believe me I did a lot of it and quite often," Stokes said. "But I did not come to know Jesus Christ until I started going to church with Georgia."
He apologizes as he pauses a moment to catch his breath. Each breath appears to be a struggle for his frail body. His eyes reveal the pain he's in, but he is determined to continue the conversation.
"Let's see, I got saved not long after I started going to church," Stokes said. "I wish I [could] remember the name of the pastor back then, but it slips my mind -– it's tough getting old. Anyway with his help I came to know Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
"It is good that I was saved, because I don't know what I would have done without Him over the last 60 years. He has helped me get through the tough times and he's been with me during the good times," Stokes said. "He's with me now."
Hudson, who served on the U.S.S. Gunston Hall during World War II and the Korean War, has been in the VA for almost four months, recovering from a massive stroke. The 82-year-old Navy veteran, who doesn't look his age, is all smiles.
A sudden coughing fit wracks his body and it takes him several moments before it stops and he can compose himself.
"I served on a repair ship that also was a fighting ship," Hudson said. "We repaired amphibious landing craft. We would get them ready for the invasions.
"When WWII was over, I got out of the Navy in 1948, but got back in for Korea," Hudson said. "The ship I was on (the Gunston Hall) was almost sunk in the South China Sea."
During its time of service, the U.S.S. Hall won nine battle stars in WWII and nine more in the Korean War. Hudson, a self-admitted country boy, talks proudly of the ship on which he served.
"We got into some pretty tough situations out there, what with the Kamikazes," he said. "I was able to make it through two wars without a scratch."
Saved at the age of 19, Hudson returned from the war and settled in south Grant Parish.
"I was born here in 1926 in Dry Prong [La.]," Hudson, a deacon in his church, says with a smile. "I've been a Baptist all my life, so when I went to war I was glad I had my Lord and Savior looking out for me.
It has only been within the past five months that Hudson has found himself confined to his small room at the VA Hospital. He hasn't allowed his circumstances, though, to prevent him from ministering to those he comes in contact with throughout the week.
"I try to minister to the patients here at the hospital on a daily basis. The stroke pretty much took my voice –- I was a tenor -– and my wind, but I still like to entertain folks with my harmonicas."
His favorite song is "Amazing Grace" and, before his stroke, he would not only play it, but sing it a cappella. While some might lament the loss of their singing voice, Hudson doesn't.
Instead he turns to his harmonicas to reach people musically. He has seven of them and uses each one during a show, which takes place the third Thursday of each month.
"There is nothing like the sound of a good harmonica played by someone who knows how to use them," Hudson, who worked as an electrician at the hospital for many years, said. "They make such sweet music, and I usually have someone accompanying me on the piano."
His attitude, like his smile, is infectious.
"I have a great deal of joy because God is with me all the time, and I just want to pass that on whenever I can," Hudson said.
Another coughing fit forces him to stop. Two visitors can only watch helplessly as the coughing wracks his body. He struggles with the fit for several minutes, but finally, it passes and he is able to compose himself once more.
"I'm sorry these fits come and go," Hudson said. "Now what was I telling you? Oh yes, I don't sing anymore -– it is more like hollering. So, I let others do the singing and I play my harmonicas."
Yet, as much as he does for others, there are those –- family, friends and church members -– who seemingly do just as much for him. There are Ziploc bags of goodies, a small Christmas tree and even an open present or two.
"Would you like a cookie –- they are chocolate chip, my favorite," Hudson says with a smile. "I've even got some candy. It's got to be soft, because I don't have my teeth in all the time."
Outward appearances would seem to indicate Hudson to be very blessed with companionship -- he has a big family and has been at his church for a long time. But he says he gets few visitors.
"I am sorry to say I don't get many at all," Hudson says with a noticeable sadness in his voice. "I wish more would stop by and visit. It would be wonderful –- it would be an answer to prayer."
Fatigue is beginning to set in, and it is time for his visitors to leave. He shake hands, and it is a firm one. He doesn't immediately let go, and then, finally, reluctantly, he loosens his grip.
"Thank you," he whispers, "and may God bless you."
Philip Timothy is a writer for the Baptist Message, newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.