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Our November Community Hero Honors Vets on ‘Last Patrol’

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Upstate-based group’s mission is to offer veterans in end-of-life care friendship, honor and support from volunteers who are veterans themselves.

Richard Wright served in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force.  

He is currently in hospice care at the Parker, an assisted living facility in Downtown Greenville. 

On the day before Veterans Day, in the facility’s day room, Richard and a half-dozen of his fellow residents — also veterans — were being honored for their service, with a salute and a thank you from about a dozen of their fellow vets.  

Several times a week, volunteers from Veteran’s Last Patrol gather somewhere in the Upstate for an Honor Ceremony, part of the Upstate-based group’s mission to make sure that no veteran faces end-of-life care without friendship, honor and support from a fellow military veteran.  

The ceremonies are just one of the programs VLP operates, including coordinating one on one visits between veteran volunteers and veterans in nursing or hospice care and an annual drive called “Operation Holiday Salute,” which each year sends cards to thousands of veterans on their Last Patrol.

One of the veterans saluting Wright and the others was Roger Williams, the Upstate Captain for VLP.  

Williams was on the crew of a C-141 Starlifter military transport plane during his Vietnam War-era service in the Air Force. Afterward, he began a career as a design engineer.  

A few years ago, he was working for the Schmid Corporation, a manufacturing machinery company in Spartanburg owned by Claude Schmid.  

‘Take Care of Each Other Until the End’

Schmid, also known as “the Colonel,” retired from the Army in 2013 after 31 years in the Army, serving in combat units around the world. He led the operation that evacuated casualties from combat zones, where he got plenty of experience meeting and assisting wounded warriors on their way to medical care.  

After he retired, he began to work as a volunteer, visiting veterans in hospice care. 

“I found out pretty quickly that there’s a great shortage of volunteers,” Schmid said. “Knowing what I know about the veterans’ community and the brotherhood between us, I said ‘this is just not right. We need to take care of each other until the end.’” 

Out of that realization, Schmid founded Veterans Last Patrol in late 2018. It has expanded rapidly and now has more than 500 volunteers who work in more than 25 states.   

It also rapidly became clear that Schmid needed reinforcements. 

Williams said he and a group of fellow veterans had been gathering for lunch for years. Schmid joined them one day and outlined a proposal for what became VLP.   

Most members of the group were eager to volunteer their time, Williams said.  

‘Busier Being Retired’

When Williams decided he was ready to retire after years of frequently traveling on business, Schmid offered him the opportunity to organize Veteran’s Last Patrol activities in Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson and the rest of the Upstate. 

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Now, on any given Tuesday or Thursday, VLP volunteers are honoring veterans on their “Last Patrol” at a nursing home or other care facility — sometimes even at a veteran’s home where they are under hospice care.  

Williams says that VLP has become his main occupation –- and that of his wife, Kay, who Williams says volunteers as much, if not more, than he does.  

The work keeps him moving — the back seat of his truck has become a mobile office where he keeps his files about upcoming events and information about the volunteers who plan to attend.  

“Most people who are retired are busier being retired than they were when they were working,” Williams says.  

For their tireless commitment to helping honor veterans, Williams, Schmid and Veteran’s Last Patrol have been named November’s Greenville News Community Heroes.  

The Community Hero program, sponsored by the Greenville Federal Credit Union, is a way of recognizing generous, noble and selfless work by those among us who make our community a better place.  

End of the Journey

As a percentage of population, South Carolina has more veterans than all but a handful of states, more than 350,000 in all. 

Many of those who have served are approaching the end of their life journeys.  

Surviving World War II vets are in their 90s, Korean War vets are in their 80s and 90s and even the youngest Vietnam War Vets are in their late 60s and 70s. A large number of vets in end-of-life care means Williams and his volunteers have plenty to do.   

“Most of the time, we only get a few days notice,” Williams says. “If we’re doing a hospice honors ceremony, we’re talking about end of life care and you never know…”  

Williams recalls a ceremony about a year ago where the honoree passed away the morning of an honor ceremony, about an hour before the VLP volunteers arrived.  

“There must’ve been 30 family members there and we went ahead with the ceremony,” he said. “We ended up spending a long time there with the family.” 

Willams says that sometimes are as many as 50 or 60 family members gathered for an honor ceremony, but sometimes there’s no one but the honoree. 

“Those are really sad,” Williams says. “We try to gather as many of us as we can for those.” 

Recognition … and Tears

Honor ceremonies offer some items of recognition, often letters of appreciation or certificates. Hospice patients receive a handmade quilt of honor. 

Kay Williams says the work is often as meaningful for the volunteers as it is for the veterans being honored.  

“When we have the opportunity to stand before them and present them with certificates, give them a hug, wrap a quilt around them that someone has made for them and be a part of saying ‘thank you so much for what you’ve given for us,’ the tears come, both for the recipients and those who are standing in front of them,” she said.  

Amy Howard is outreach coordinator for Providence Care in Simpsonville, one of the dozens of Upstate facilities where VLP works with residents. She says that the volunteers have a unique veteran-to-veteran perspective.   

“A lot of times our veterans are isolated. Often they prefer to talk only to another veteran,” Howard says. “We want to make sure we respect and honor them, especially as they approach end of life. We want them to have their best days.”   

Howard said she reached out to Schmid and Veteran’s Last Patrol for help. “I am so grateful. What a difference they have made to these veterans.” 

Want to Help?

Veteran’s Last Patrol is in the process of collecting holiday cards to send to veterans in hospice or nursing care this year. 

The goal of the 4th annual Operation Holiday Salute is to bring a little holiday joy to veterans on their Last Patrol.   

Last year VLP sent more than 50,000 cards to veterans across the U.S. You can write a message to a veteran, address it “Dear Hero” or “Dear Veteran” and send it before Dec. 2 to: Veteran’s Last Patrol 140B Venture Blvd. Spartanburg, SC 29306 

More information available at veteranlastpatrol.org 

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