Tuesday, May 24, 2011



I performed at the Center for the Aging on the grounds of Tripler Army Medical Center Monday. I've been volunteering there since early 2003 so I know most of the long-term residents.

One such resident, a Navy fighter pilot, was absent. I call him "Top Gun" since he not only has to take off and land a jet while fighting wind conditions which throws the plane into yaws and unplanned banks, he must also do so while his tiny landing strip is also moving side to side and back to front.

Top, I believe, is the recipient of the Navy Cross. It's difficult to confirm these things because vets don't like talking about themselves and their achievements. He also used to play the guitar and loved music. That is, until he ended up with a body that is totally broken and can't move his hands or legs. If his nose is running, he needs to call for help so someone can wipe his face for him. Calling for help is a very difficult thing to do for a vet who is trained and conditioned to adapt and improvise in everyday life.

Mr. Gun was the first one in the room every Monday morning. I begin at 10 so I arrive at 9:45 to set up my keys and sound system. And there was Top waiting for the music to begin. I found out that he was younger than me (at my age, everyone's younger than me) having been born in 1947. That was noted only because when people sit in wheelchairs with broken bodies, they look older than they really are.

He loved the old ballads so I planned to sing Sinatra songs for the first part of the show and then switch to patriotic music in celebration of Armed Forces month and Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a Federal Holiday so I normally skip those days because they are short on staff on holidays.

Then, one of the staff members came up to me and told me that Top had passed away this past weekend. I felt a heaviness in the atmosphere that morning and that confirmed my uneasiness. Top was loved by residents and staff alike. His passing also reminds everyone we are all vulnerable and that makes us uneasy.

As a volunteer at nursing homes and at the hospice, I've accepted that each visit may very well be the last interaction I may have with a person. I work hard at finding music and songs that will feed that person's soul for the brief hour that I'm there. If I can bring peace to the person through music, I've done something useful.

I dedicated one of the numbers "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to Top that morning. And some songs like "America the Beautiful" were difficult to get through. Most of these vets have at least one American flag attached to their wheelchair. If you want to witness people who love their country and the Constitution that they have vowed to defend, visit a Veterans' Hospital or facility.

I am reminded of the Rambo line, "I love my country, but my country doesn't love me".

Someone sent me the following so I can't give credit to the author:

It is the Veteran, not the Preacher who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Veteran, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Veteran, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer who has given us the freedom to assemble.

It is the Veteran, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Veteran, not the politician who has given us the right to vote.

Have a safe Memorial Day!