Veteran's final days of life at VA hospice prompt efforts to ensure dignity
PRESCOTT - In the last five days of Vietnam veteran Richard Miller's life, his bedside companion was a two-tour Iraq veteran some 20 years his junior who wanted to be sure the Army soldier did not die alone.
Without formal permission from anyone, the former U.S. Navy sailor John Keith, 37, of Pine, opted to stand vigil with Miller, a patient in the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System' hospice. Miller died on the Fourth of July.
"I promised him that we would be brothers till the end," Keith said of the promise he made to the former U.S. Army combat medic.
The two became acquainted some four years ago when Miller connected with Keith through the online Facebook veteran community, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Veteran Community, he founded in 2009.
The mission of the organization, which has more than 50,000 members, is to help veterans get the benefits, services and support they have earned the right to receive, Keith said. The community also strives to educate veterans about issues of concern, including veteran suicide rates. The organization is currently working to propose to Congress a Veterans Bill of Rights.
As the organization founder, Keith said he makes it a point to personally connect with every member so as to determine their needs, be it a VA benefits form, housing options or medical assistance. His community does not provide any direct service nor does it collect donations, but it works with veterans to get the paperwork they require and refer them to agencies they are confident can assist them.
In this role, Keith has become a vocal advocate for veterans.
In Miller's case, Keith became a self-appointed guardian as Miller has no close family ties and was diagnosed more than six months ago with terminal bone cancer. Before Miller's imminent death, Keith turned to his online community to reach out to his reclusive friend. He wanted to flood him with cards and care packages to lift his spirits in his final days.
So Keith said he was saddened, even angry, when he arrived at the hospice the week before his friend's death to find his room empty beyond a few simple belongings: a hat, a blanket, a wallet and a cellphone. No get-well cards or military mementos despite appeals to veterans who assured they were mailed.
Keith was even given a photograph of a box of mementos a Michigan member of a "Rolling Thunder" chapter forwarded to Miller that he apparently never received.
That member, Chris Bell, said the box didn't contain anything of particular value - some U.S. Army hat pins, a lanyard with a keyring, a water bottle, a bandana and some get-well cards - but it was intended to "cheer him up a little, to show him that someone out there cared."
VA Public Affairs Officer Mary Dillinger said Keith's concerns about missing mail has been thoroughly investigated, and while Miller did receive some correspondence both before and after he died, no packages addressed to him were ever delivered.
"Our mailroom staff went back as far as six months and did not find any packages for the veteran," Dillinger said as the result of an official media inquiry.
On average, the hospice unit receives only one to three letters a week, mail room staff said.
Any donations to veterans must first go through the Volunteer Services Department for accountability purposes, and then are distributed to where they are designated. Any package designated for the hospice would be forwarded to it after it went through the proper checks, Dillinger said.
Though Keith stated that Miller considered him to be his "family," Dillinger said there was no official documentation that Miller ever made him his official representation. Keith did ask to be given Miller's hat and the blanket he was wrapped in at his death, but Dillinger said that request could not be honored because Keith was not officially designated as Miller's power-of-attorney.
Miller does have a brother who lives in Colorado.
Upon Miller's death, Keith spearheaded efforts to conduct a proper veteran memorial service for him. Though the VA was charged with making the formal funeral arrangements, Keith arranged for the Patriot Guard Riders and American Legion to provide a flag line and tribute for their comrade.
"Without a doubt, if it wasn't for that young man (Keith), the service would not have had the same complexion as it did," said Phil Whitehead, the coordinating ride captain. "He, singlehandedly, was responsible for making sure that veteran received the level of respect and recognition that he received.
"We would have done something once notified, and it would have been good, but it wouldn't have had the same feel without the personal touch and intensity that soldier brought back with him from the battlefield," Whitehead said.
Whitehead praised Keith's efforts to ensure all veterans are properly recognized.
"He took it upon himself to do this ... He's pretty amazing."
Dillinger does not disagree that Keith's efforts to honor Miller appear noble. "It's nice that Mr. Keith went above and beyond with what he did," Dillinger said.
She is clear, though, that the VA should not be tagged as a villain in how Miller was treated in his final days. "He was a very nice man, but he was private, and he did not like company," Dillinger said.
The VA hospice has trained volunteers who spend time visiting and staying with patients in their final days and hours, particularly those who have no family to be with them, Dillinger said, but the patients must be willing to have such visitors. And Miller was clear he did not want that kind of attention.
The first morning after he arrived to see Miller in the hospice before his death Keith presented his friend with a shadow box flag he brought from home. Though unable to speak, Miller gave "me the biggest smile," Keith said.
For the remaining days of Miller's life, Keith stayed close, certain that even though comatose, Miller was comforted by his presence. Keith's final act just before Miller's death was to kiss him on the cheek and assure him he was loved.
In the future, Keith said he intends to be a regular visitor to veterans at the hospice. And he knows some of those who attended Miller's service have pledged the same. They want to be certain these American heroes are never forgotten.
"These guys deserve better, that's all there is to it," Keith said.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter@HutsonNanci Reach her at 928-445-3333 Ext. 2041 or 928-642-6809.