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Cpl. Adam Austin visits Juanita Ramey's in her Kansas City home. Although her worsening dementia makes conversation difficult, the company can be comforting to the ailing vets.

(Reprint from, September 29, 2008)

When Marines visit dying veterans, Job No. 1 is being there

The Kansas City Star
Editor's note: The Rev. Arthur Eggers, one of the hospice patients featured in this story, died Sept. 24. Our condolences to his family. His obituary was published in The Star on Friday, Sept. 26.

He's gone now, so no one can know how much the visit truly meant to him.

But those who loved him know one thing: When two U.S. Marines paid a visit to Pat McMahon's Kansas City home last month, he seemed like anything but a dying man.

Actually, as the 61-year-old paced around his living room, snapping off one-liners and reminiscing about his years in Vietnam, the old Army vet never seemed more alive, those who knew him say.

His visitors, Staff Sgt. Deuntae Preston and Cpl. Adam Austin, came courtesy of a new partnership between Kansas City's Heartland Home Health Care & Hospice and the Marine Corps. The program matches single Marines in need of something to do with ailing vets who wouldn't mind a little company.

Stacy Higgins, Heartland's volunteer coordinator, came up with the program. She asked the Marines to get involved after noticing that one-quarter of hospice patients are veterans.

'If you were a prisoner of war in World War II, well, that's nice to share the story with me,' she says. 'But for someone who is serving our country today to come in and give them that time ' now that's powerful.'

Sixteen Marines volunteered after Higgins made a presentation to them in April. Preston, the president of a local group of single Marines, saw the benefit in such a joint venture.

'I want to do this for what they did for us before,' he says. 'Because the day might come when I'm that patient.'

In Pat McMahon's home, Austin and Preston sit stiffly at his dining room table. Austin, a fresh-faced Marine originally from central Ohio, picks up a photo album and points at a picture of a young soldier.

'So this one''s you?' he asks.

'No,' McMahon says. 'That's a friend of mine. ' His wife divorced him. He said (McMahon puts a whiny, high-pitched tone in his voice), 'My wife divorced me!' And I said, 'Hell ' Everyone knows she's a bitch!'

That does it. The Marines' carefully controlled sense of propriety melts like a marshmallow in a microwave. They burst out laughing. As soon as they do, the man they'd come to visit is no longer a dying hospice patient. He's their friend.

This day McMahon is a bear of a man in blue jeans, green T-shirt and large wire-rimmed glasses that seem to balance on his thickly bristled white push-broom mustache. An oxygen tube hangs from his neck and coils through his home like a clear plastic snake. He speaks with an uncomfortably low and gravelly voice.

He tells stories from the war and laughs more than he has in months.

His wife, Janice, even joins in the fun.

'I (asked him once), 'Did you guys ever do anything ridiculous in Vietnam?' she says. 'And he said, 'We stole a truckload of beer.' '

'Oh, we stole more than that,' her husband corrects her.

'How many?'

'Sixteen truckloads of beer.'

'What did you do with it all?'

'Sold it.'

'To who?'

'Everybody. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, just about anybody who wanted it. You got money, you got booze. And cigarettes. We sold those the same way.'

Initially, McMahon told Higgins he didn't want visitors. But he changed his mind. They were Marines, after all. McMahon had always liked Marines. He might even have been one had his eyesight been better.

McMahon starts in on another story, then stops, seemingly unable to summon the memory.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had partly obstructed his lungs, making it difficult to get enough air. A doctor had given him less than six months to live.

But on this day he has forgotten all that. The tough old bird even manages a smile.

When it's time to leave, Cpl. Austin shakes Pat McMahon's hand.

'Thank you for letting us visit with you today,' he says.

Days later, Pat McMahon died. Janice McMahon will not soon forget the kindness of the two Marines who came to her home.

'He really, really enjoyed it,' she says. 'He was on cloud nine.'

So was she.

'I was in awe,' she says. 'These men are dedicating their lives to protect all of us. It was an honor.'

After leaving the McMahons, Higgins and the Marines visit another Army vet ' Juanita Ramey of Kansas City. Growing up poor, she joined the Army to get an education. After graduating from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, she taught grade school in Kansas City from the 1950s to the '80s.

Now frail and failing at 90 with rapidly worsening dementia, the great-grandmother could barely move.

'Hi, Juanita,' Higgins says in a sing-song voice. Ramey stirs in her bed. Her daughter, Margaret Ransberg, sits her up and puts a blue sweater on her. 'Do you remember when you were in the service? Yes? Well, I brought some members of the military.'

The Marines stand over her bedside. An uncomfortable silence fills the room.

Ramey struggles to say something. The words are soft and unintelligible.

'What do you want us to know?' asks Higgins, the hospice volunteer coordinator.

'Every day I worried about having courage,' Ramey says in a soft and tremulous voice.

'You have a lot of courage,' Higgins says. 'You have a lot of strength. You're still with us.'

Cpl. Austin reads letters and newspaper clippings from an old scrapbook as Preston thumbs through a book of remembrances in the living room.

'I would have hated dealing with you from some of the stuff I'm reading in here,' Austin says. 'You were a force to be reckoned with.'

She manages a smile. 'Yeah.'

It's not an easy day. Higgins notices that Ramey is laboring more than usual.

'Well, we'll let you rest, Juanita,' Higgins says.

There isn't much talking at Ramey's house. But even when visitors don't say much, Higgins says, they still make a difference. She remembers her experience with a patient who just wanted her to watch TV.

'We just sat there and watched TV for an hour and a half,' Higgins says. 'Nothing! The next day her sister calls me and says, 'All my sister can talk about is how much she enjoyed your visit.' There were three words said. That was it. But sometimes that's all you need, to know someone is there.'

Col. Steve Waldron, deputy commanding general of the Marine Corps Mobilization Command in Kansas City, is pleased his Marines are involved with such a worthwhile program.

'My sister, Julie Shaffer, is a hospice care worker (in Michigan),' he says. 'So this is something that is close to my family.'

The visits fit nicely with the mission of the Marine Corps' Single Marine program, he says.

'The Single Marine program was created to fill young Marines' off-duty hours with recreation and camaraderie ' to give them something to do,' he says. 'Sgt. Preston has helped take that to a higher level, to find not only what they can do, but what they can do for others.'

But he knows that kindness is not the first thing people think of when they hear 'Marine.'

'Sure, we have extensive training and we're tremendous war fighters, and we're very proud of that,' he says. 'But we also have a compassionate side. Historically, look at what we've done in the areas where we've been militarily successful. We build schools and help people get back on their feet ' part of a Marine's job is not only the fighting, but the healing afterward.'

A week later Higgins, Preston and Austin visit the home of Kansas City veteran Arthur Eggers, the pastor of Grace Christian Assembly on Blue Ridge Boulevard. Eggers, 83, reclines in a cream-colored chair and keeps the Marines spellbound with tales from his 30-year-career in the Navy.

With a weak and breathy voice, he tells a story of when he lost his ID card in the early 1940s.

'I went to the executive officer ' and I fainted right there in his office,' he says. 'When I came to, I was in an ambulance. While I was in the hospital, the ship sailed, so I missed it.'

Later he got word that the ship he missed was sunk off the coast of New Guinea.

'No survivors,' he tells his visitors.

'Whoa,' says a wide-eyed Austin. 'That was a touch of grace.'

Eggers shakes his head.

'Tell 'em what changed your life,' says his daughter, Linda DeSimio.

'Well, I could buy cigarettes for 50 cents a carton,' he says. 'I'd trade (those) to longshoremen for whiskey. Then we'd get out to sea. And with 4,000 soldiers on there it wasn't hard to sell them for $35, $40 or $50 a fifth.

'So we come into Alameda Naval Yard and I had a little less than $400 on me. Back in the '40s that was a lot of money! I remember going into this tavern, picking up this girl and getting into a cab with her. That's all I remember.'

The next thing he knew he was back on the ship ' flat broke.

'Later this man on the ship started talking to me about the Lord and about how much Christ loved him. And I thought, 'Oh, that's nice.' I said he needed to go out and have some fun with me. I said, 'You're leading an awful dull life.' '

The Marines cackle.

But later, Eggers says, the man succeeded in leading him to God. They went together to a spiritual gathering at a large auditorium in Oakland, Calif., where Eggers gave his life to Jesus. After doing some revival work, he became a pastor in 1957.

Tears well up in his eyes. His voice becomes weak and begins to crack.

'Whatever happens in my life, he will take care of me,' he says.

He pauses as the Marines sit silent.

'Well, that's about it,' he says. 'I don't know what else you might be interested in.'

Cpl. Austin looks at him and smiles.

'Just your company, sir.'

The hospice commitment
Most people have heard of hospice care, but not everyone knows how it works.

The first thing to understand is that hospice is a program, not a place. Kansas City has about 30 hospice programs of various sizes. Some are local, others national. Heartland Home Health Care & Hospice, which has partnered with the U.S. Marines to make friendly home visits to veterans in hospice care, has 115 offices in 33 states. It has about 25 employees locally, and serves, at any one time, about 70 patients.

To qualify for hospice care, patients must have an order from a doctor and a diagnosis of a terminal condition with a life expectancy of six months or less.

Heartland Home Health Care & Hospice accepts private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

'However,' says Stacy Higgins, the company's volunteer coordinator, 'if someone needs to go on hospice care, we will take them on our service regardless of their ability to pay.'

Higgins has worked at Heartland for a year. Her job is to recruit people to make friendly home visits to the company's patients.

It's not always easy. When they find out what Higgins does many pull away.

'Oh, dying people,' they say.

'No,' she answers. 'Still living people.'

Hospice offers many other helpful services. They include running errands, performing chores, preparing meals, writing letters, organizing photographs and giving the primary caregiver a respite.

Heartland's services do not end when a patient dies. They continue for 13 months to help the family through the transitional period.

'You build these relationships with people,' Higgins says. 'You can't just say 'OK, good luck.' That's not how we operate. That's not who we are.'