How to Honor Your Veteran Patients
Updated: Jan 15
Have you ever had a patient want to tell you his "sea stories" when you ask them personal history? Or had a woman talk about her job in WAC when you ask what her occupation was? Sometimes younger 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 in skilled geriatric 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 and scared. 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. Play the National Anthem, their service songs, or famous marches like Stars and Stripes, Washington Post March, American's We, The Thunderer, National Emblem, or my favorites, The Black Horse Troop and the West Point March. Many recordings can be found here.
*Update - I've had several requests to post recordings from when I was serving. Here are the links to a few performances. Wow, my voice has changed in 10 years, I sounded so young! Age related voice changes will be a great topic for another post.
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 some of the US and French countrys' highest military honors...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 service brothers and sisters. A great way to do this is to write letters to troops downrange. 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!
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. 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 use these with patients on puree textures or anyone who has allergies to lots of 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 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, and Facebook.