Volunteer veterans are making sure no veteran dies alone

Julia LeDoux
August 02, 2019 - 1:20 pm
Don Griffith and patient

Department of Veterans Affairs

Don Griffith spends his days by the bedsides of dying veterans at the VA Medical Center in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

And he wouldn’t give up what he considers a calling, for anything.

“Sometimes, a veteran needs to talk,” said Griffith, an Army veteran who saw combat in Vietnam. He now volunteers with the VA’s No Veteran Dies Alone program.

Volunteers like Griffith provide a human touch when family and friends cannot be there for the end of a veteran's life.

Griffith said he swaps service and life stories over laughs and tears with dying veterans. Other times, he is a quiet and comforting presence by the veteran’s bedside -- it's all about what the dying veteran wants, he explained.

Griffith felt compelled to volunteer with the program when he learned about it nine years ago.

“I find it such an honor to be invited into the veteran’s experience and the family,” he said.

One of the veterans who Griffith ensured did't die alone expressed concern that his grandchildren wouldn’t know who he was after he died.

Griffith came up with a solution. 

“We created a little book we passed on to his family,” he explained.

Don Griffith
Department of Veterans Affairs

Don Griffith poses outside of the Lebanon VA Medical Center's hospice unit July 29. Griffith has been volunteering with the No Veteran Dies Alone program for nine-years.

There are many reasons why a veteran may not have family or friends nearby at the end of life, said Ryan Weller, the VA’s acting national program manager for palliative care. The veteran may have outlived his family and friends or be estranged from his relatives. Today’s mobile society also increases the physical distance that separates family and friends from each other.

“I don’t think we can overstate that for many veterans, the VA and staff are their families,” Weller added.

No Veteran Dies Alone is fueled by volunteers like Griffith who feel called and are emotionally equipped to participate in it, said Sabrina Clark, the VA’s national director of voluntary services.

“Part of the requirement (to volunteer with No Veteran Dies Alone) is to make sure the person can do it,” she said. “This clearly is a very special role.”

The VA has developed training videos and a manual for those who may be interested in volunteering with the program, which is available at VA facilities nationwide.

“The program has been so rewarding to the veterans and volunteers who are a part of it,” said Dr. Scott Shreve, the VA’s national director of palliative and hospice care.  “It’s a win-win for veterans and their families."

Griffith said the program is also a win for volunteers.

"I get out of it more than I give," he said.

To volunteer or learn more aobut the program, contact your nearest VA medical center.

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