How to Start a Conversation with your Hospice Patient About Their Military Service

Memorial Day is a day to remember and honor those men and women who lost their lives fighting for our freedom. Memorial Day is also a good reminder for hospice team members to take the time to listen to, and allow, your patients to share their military service experiences, as a part of their life review.

But, many caregivers and hospice providers are hesitant about reaching out to veterans about their military service because they are either not sure what they should ask, or they are afraid they might ask the wrong question and make the veteran feel uncomfortable.

And, let’s face it: Military Veterans can sometimes be intimidating, especially to those non-military civilians, like me.

When I first started in hospice nursing eight years ago, I didn’t know much about the military service. I knew of our nation’s history of wars, I knew my grandfather was a veteran (although he didn’t talk much about his time in the service during WW2), and I knew there were holidays to celebrate and honor our military. However, that’s about all I knew. I stood for the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand on my heart, sang the Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games, and customarily stood up when the Color Guard walked by during parades. I followed what I was taught with regards to respecting our country, attended fun BBQs on Memorial Day, and never really understood what Veterans Day was exactly or how it was different than Memorial Day.

But then one day, my perspective changed DRASTICALLY when my son left home for Basic Training with the US Army. Suddenly, everything was put into a real and understanding perspective for me. I now see the amazing magnitude of commitment and sacrifice and honor our military men and women have for their country and it leaves me speechless and proud. I’m proud to be an American. I stand taller and hold my hand even closer to my heart when I hear The Star- Spangled Banner. It even puts tears in my eyes every single time I hear it.

I’m ashamed to say that Although I was raised to respect our country, the flag, and our military, it wasn’t until my son enlisted and left for basic training that I suddenly understood, fully respected, and truly appreciated our United States Military.

Throughout my son’s military training and his multiple deployments, I have come to learn “the lingo” which has helped me connect with veterans in our hospice services. MOS, ACU, PFT, Hooah, Sandbox, PT, NCO, and Roger, just to name a few. However, it’s so very important to know that you don’t need to know the lingo, nor do you have to have a personal connection with anyone in the military to speak with a US Veteran about their service, or to show your appreciation for their commitment to our country.

I wish I would have known what to ask veterans years ago when I was starting in the field of hospice. Instead, I avoided the military questions during home hospice visits. I was too scared of asking the wrong question. I had this unrealistic idea that if I asked any question about the military service, it would set off a PTSD episode. So, instead, I never asked any specifics about their military service. I thought I was protecting my patient, but in reality, I was only doing a disservice by not allowing my patients to open up and share stories for life review.

However, I now know, that it is okay to ask our hospice patients about their military service.

I now know what to ask a veteran and how to ask it.

Many veterans enjoy sharing their experience with you, as their hospice nurse or team member. I usually ask my military-veteran hospice-patient one question, which, most times opens the door for the veteran to talk freely about his/her military experience – and boy, do many of them love to talk about their time in the service. Oftentimes, I find that the veterans will share personal stories of their time in the service with me, their hospice nurse, more than they do with their own family.

Here are some basic, easy, safe ways to talk to (and then, more importantly, listen to) your veteran-hospice patient:

  1. Look around his/her room. Do you see any pictures or awards that may represent time spent in the military? Ask him/her about the picture/award: Where was this picture taken? Who is in the picture with you? or, Who presented this award to you? Why were you presented with this award?
  2. If there are no pictures or awards, but you know they served in the military, you can start by asking them, “Which branch of the military did you serve in?”
  3. If you are uncomfortable asking #2 above, you can ALWAYS start by asking them, “Would it be okay if I asked you about your military service?” If they permit you to ask, then ask away! If they say that they don’t want to talk about it (which I have not ever encountered in my time as a hospice nurse), then don’t. And, then steer the conversation to another topic, or begin your assessment.
  4. Where did you spend the majority of your time in the service?
  5. Where did you attend Basic Training (for Army or Air Force)? or Boot Camp (for Marines or Navy)?
  6. How did you communicate with family and friends back home while you were training or actively serving in the military?
  7. What did you enjoy most about your time in the military?

Usually, all you need to do is open the conversation up by asking one of the questions listed above, and then, before you know it, your patient will start sharing stories about their training, friendships developed, experiences, skills they learned, and even funny stories (there sure seems to be a lot of funny stories that come from the military training). And remember, it’s okay just to listen. You don’t have to think of anything to say back to them when they pause or when they are done talking; just listen. When they are done sharing, simply say “Thank you for sharing these stories with me.”

Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to support. Be prepared to thank them for their service at the end of your hospice visit – especially after they share military stories with you.

When they are done talking about their experiences or feelings about their time served in the military, you can simply say,

“Thank you for sharing these stories with me”

or

“Thank you for your bravery and your service.”

In conclusion, it’s important to remember not to be afraid nor intimidated to ask your hospice patient about their military service. Really. Many veterans in hospice service are very proud of their service. Many veterans appreciate you taking the time to ask and appreciate the fact that you took the time to listen to them talk about their stories.

“To our men and women in uniform, past, present, and future – God bless you and thank you for your bravery and your service”.

MILITARY RECOGNITION DAYS THROUGHOUT THE YEAR: There are MANY different days throughout the year that Veterans and their family members are recognized. Here are just a few: Memorial Day (in May), Armed Forces Day (in May), Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy (in June), Flag Day (in June), Independence Day (in July), Purple Heart Day (in August), Veterans Day (in November), Pearl Harbor Day (in December).


For more information about Hospice to share with those that might not be familiar with the hospice benefit, please visit: www.hospice-101.com . This is a simple, easy-to-read website for families and loved ones contemplating hospice services. Hospice-101.com has no affiliation with any organization and no affiliation with any hospice agency. Just basic, simple information for patients, their loved ones, and caregivers about Hospice.

About the Author: The Hospice-101.com creator and author is a dedicated Hospice Nurse with 8-years of experience in the field of Hospice & Palliative Care. She is also a Certified Hospice & Palliative Nurse (CHPN) who is passionate about education and providing compassionate end-of-life cares.

For More Hospice Blogs from this Author, Click Here.

Published by TeriHospiceRN

The author is a dedicated RN with 8-years experience as a Hospice Nurse. She is a Certified Hospice & Palliative Nurse (CHPN) who is passionate about education, and providing compassionate end-of-life cares.

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