How to Honor Your Veteran Patients
Updated: Jun 11
Have you ever had a geriatric patient want to tell you his "sea stories?" Or had a woman talk about her job in WAC when you ask what her occupation was? Sometimes Vets talk in strings of acronyms, like PT, ACU, FOB, MRE, TDY, MOS, DMZ. (there are so many that Wikipedia devotes an entire page to them here)
So many patients that we see across the rehabilitative care have proudly served our country across all five services - Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. (and y'all, now there is a Space Force - I should have stayed in the military!) There are several ways that you, as their therapist, nurse, activities director, volunteers, etc. can help celebrate, honor, and appreciate them while achieving functional speech goals.
1. Reconnect Them to Military Music
Music has an incredible power to instantly transport someone to another time, place, mood, or story. Research has shown that in some patients with dementia, singing can improve mood, cognition, behavior, reduce stress, and can provide something familiar and safe to someone who is confused with the world around them. Play and discuss what you hear and see, reminisce about ceremonial events/parades they took part in, put on a good Sousa march while a patient is gait training down the hall, etc. There are even running cadences recorded on YouTube or listed on Apple Music with drill sergeants leading the call/response for workouts.
As a former Army Bandsman, I can attest that there are certain pieces of music that are just not the same unless performed by a military ensemble. Most military music units have websites, social media pages, and You Tube channels for you to stream from. Play the National Anthem, their service songs, or famous marches like Stars and Stripes, Washington Post March, American's We, The Thunderer, National Emblem, Bravura (will make Army band members groan), or my favorites, The Black Horse Troop and the West Point March. Many recordings can be found here.
I had the honor to sing the anthem for Presidents and most of the professional sports teams in Texas as part of my job. This was for the Houston Texans in 2010:
2. Veteran's History Project - Library of Congress
Make sure their incredible stories are told and forever recorded in the Library of Congress' Veteran's History Project. This is a great activity to complete when you're searching for language stimulus, or working on voice and dysarthria goals, because it requires the Vet to submit their story by video. Not only are you recording history, but I guarantee you'll hear some of the most interesting tales no matter which branch or time they served. I had a patient who was a WWII Veteran - he was one of the Army's first Pathfinders who dropped into Normandy just before D-Day, fought with a French unit against the Russians, liberated Paris, liberated Dachau concentration camp, and was awarded the highest military honors in the US and France, with a scrapbook of photos to boot. Yet his story was not recorded, and I had the privilege to help him tell it. Go to www.loc.gov/vets to see all of the information needed, what questions to ask, and how to submit your Vet's story.
3. Write Letters to Deployed Servicemembers
"I've got your six" and "battle buddy" are common slang meaning we watch out for and support our comrades. Help your Veteran keep this tradition alive by writing letters to troops downrange or stationed overseas. There are great organizations that collect messages to send including Operation Gratitude, the USO, and Support Our Troops. I always have at least one friend deployed each holiday season, and collect goodies and letters to send care packages. If you're local to Dallas, we'd love to include your letters and *small* goodies in our boxes around Thanksgiving!
4. Create an Honor Table for the Dining Rooms
Military meals include an honor/missing man table to recognize those that came before us or who are still unaccounted for. This display is a great way to honor and remember the sacrifice of Veterans who have passed, POW, or MIA. Each item and component on the table has special significance. Here is a great resource with photos, instructions, and the poem that explains the meaning behind the items.
5. Share an MRE
MRE stands for Meal Ready to Eat - troops eat these when out in the field in places that hot meals cannot be prepared or safely served. They come very packaged, can be heated up with the included Flameless Ration Heater that's activated by water, and contain nearly a day's worth of calories and a decade's worth of preservatives. Some items are highly coveted, and Soldiers make special recipes by combining the various pouches together and trading certain foods. I personally always loved the little bottles of Tobasco included in some of the packages. Others are absolutely disgusting and are dubbed "The 3 Lies - they aren't meals, aren't ready, and they aren't edible!" Grab a couple on Amazon, and have a fun session preparing and taste-testing your MRE creations. DO NOT try these with patients who have dysphagia or anyone who has allergies to food preservatives. Also, while MREs are great for Vietnam Vets to the present, WWII soldiers will appreciate (or cringe at) a good 'ole can of SPAM.
Hopefully this gives you a good starting point to better understand and incorporate military culture into your conversations and treatment sessions. Each of these activities can be adapted to target goals for language, communication, cognition, short and long term memory, socialization, voice resonance, sequencing, etc. - please feel free to share any of your own ideas, I would love to hear from you!
Leslie Wegner, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a speech pathologist and voice teacher specializing in singing/professional voice, swallowing, accent modification, and AAC. She is the owner of North Texas Voice and Speech, a member of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Upper Airway Disorders, and is a proud Veteran of the US Army Band. Connect at www.ntxvoice.com, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.