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Phoenix VA Health Care System

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Phoenix VA Offers a Final Salute to Our Heroes

Employees gather to pay their final respects to a departing Veteran.

Phoenix VA employees gather to pay their final respects to a departing Veteran. The "Finale Salute" is the first of three phases PVAHCS is implementing to send Veterans on their final journey with dignity and respect.

By Macario Mora
Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Marine’s Hymn played as a Veteran donning hospital scrubs shouted “salute,” with the commanding presence reminiscent of a former noncommissioned officer. The ramp is lined with an eclectic mix of Phoenix VA employees — some Veterans, others not – but all at attention, saluting or with a hand over their heart as a flag-draped hero embarks on his final journey.

November 21 marked the fifth iteration of the “Final Salute” at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center. The ceremony was the idea of a collection of employees, led by Stacey O’Neall, a health systems specialist, and Lola Jones, decedent affairs, who felt compelled to honor Veterans one last time.

“We honor them,” O’Neall said. “It’s the last time we get to serve them, so we want to serve them with absolute dignity throughout the rest of their journey.”

O'Neall and Jones brought up the idea to develop a ceremony to honor the deceased Veterans with Rima Nelson, Phoenix VA Health Care System director, and was met with instant enthusiasm. So O’Neall created a workgroup with Jones and other Phoenix VA employees who had similar ideas. With the help of Steave Kantarowski, the workgroup developed an email list and overhead system announcement to alert and invite employees who are interested to come out and help honor a recently deceased Veteran.

“We had six employees show up the first time,” O’Neall said. “But, the number of employees is growing. We once had close to 40 employees show up. It’s hard for employees because they can’t walk away from patient care. But, it’s important. The gentleman today was someone’s uncle, father, husband or neighbor. We only take care of heroes, so we get to tell the whole world to take notice that someone who is very important is leaving us. Let’s pay our respects.”

The Final Salute is the first of three phases planned to honor deceased Veterans. The second phase will include bereavement baskets for the families of recently deceased Veterans. O’Neall explained when a Veteran is passing, families don’t leave the bedside to eat or take care of themselves. So, the basket will contain items to help facilitate the bereavement process and include a support ribbon for the families to wear, so VA employees and Veterans can identify grieving family members.

“We take care of them because they’re here to take care of a Veteran,” O’Neall said. “We need to take care of them and give them extra love during this period.”

O’Neall said the final phase was director’s idea.

“Once a month the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona reads off the names of unclaimed Veterans,” O’Neall explained. “But the director said ‘they’re our family, and they’re not going away alone.’”

So, there will be scheduled ceremonies in the chapel for staff who knew the Veteran and took care of them. People who served in the same branch as the Veteran will be invited to the ceremony to share stories about their branch of service. At the end of the ceremony a flag will be given to the employee or Veteran who was closest to the deceased Veteran.

“It humbles me,” O’Neall said. “There’s times I look, and I began to tear up. I didn’t know if a single employee would show up, but people want to be a part of it. It’s a good thing. We don’t just have anyone here; we have heroes.”

Employees who are interested in participating in the Final Salute should contact Stacey O’Neall to be added to the contact list, but anyone is welcome to attend. Also, employees, Veterans and visitors are reminded that the area outside the morgue should be treated as hallowed ground. Please refrain from dropping cigarette butts or spitting out gum in the area or on the sidewalk. Also, please don’t park in the spots below the morgue ramp. The final path for these Veterans is sacred.

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