SAN DIEGO - One local hospice is taking on the mission of honoring veterans in their final days.
World War II paratrooper Wally S. Shepperd was just 20 years old when he saw combat for the first time. Now 72 years later, he is in hospice care in San Carlos with less than six months to live. 10News cameras were there to see him honored for his service.
Laughter surrounded Shepperd and tears fell as he was presented with the veteran flag. It was a day of remembering, back to when 92-year-old Shepperd was a young paratrooper, sent to the combat zone in New Guinea. The Cleveland native remembers being loaded into a ship and saying goodbye to his country.
“There was ammunition piled to the ceiling, so I thought if we get hit, we won’t know about it. They zig-zagged us all the way to Australia,” said Shepperd. “I didn’t think I’d ever see the USA again, you know? But God smiled down on me… let me hang around for awhile.”
To talk to Shepperd is to be regaled by stories of his youth. He is wheelchair-bound now and on oxygen, but his mind is still sharp. He told 10News reporter Natasha Zouves he was wounded battling the Japanese. He remembers not being able to close his eyes one morning, after a night spent as the only one left awake in his foxhole. He also recalls suffering through bouts of malaria and other diseases.
“It was bad … very bad,” said Shepperd.
He prefers not to talk about combat or the friends he lost, but he does say it was all worth it. Without the war, he would not have met or married his wife. He says she was a beautiful brunette, with dimples, in the Australian Royal Air Force. And when their eyes met at the YMCA, she was, in a word, “captivating.”
“She was very beautiful … and that accent!” said Shepperd.
Danielle Hoffman, who is with Mission Hospice, told 10News taking care of veterans at the end of life presents unique challenges.
"I'm not at all surprised when Wally said he didn't want to talk about [the war],” said Hoffman.
Mission Hospice says, for veterans, many wounds are invisible. The hospice is seeing more men and women who served now than ever before as the veteran population ages. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, twenty-five percent of deaths in the United States are veterans. That amounts to 1,800 veterans a day. Meanwhile, Veterans Affairs cares for a minority of them at the end of life.
It is why Mission Hospice says days of celebration like this one are crucial.
"There's always time to healing, up until the last breath is taken, there's always time for healing," said Hoffman.
As the ceremony wrapped up, tears welled up in Shepperd's eyes. After more than 60 years of marriage, he recently lost his wife. He said, if only she could have been here, it would have been perfect. He gives this advice for a happy marriage:
“Don’t stay angry. Try to be pleasant. I don’t think it’s a job, it’s a privilege, really. She was so good. After so long a period, you become one person,” said Shepperd.
The hospice says 40 percent of its patients are now veterans. It helps them get any lost badges reissued. It expects to do dozens of ceremonies like Sheppard's in the coming months.