Its been six years since 1st Lt. Kimberly Colby, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, made her first visit to a dying veteran as part of the Honor Salute program.
It still sticks out in her mind.
He was a Marine infantryman during Vietnam and had made the Purple Heart while abroad. He was dying of colon cancer.
Throughout the visit, she and a fellow comrade, both in their service blues, saluted the Marine and thanked him for his services.
“He was stoic through the ceremony despite being in immense pain,” Colby said.
When she was going to leave he said, “You know what? That’s the first time I have ever been thanked for my services.”
At the time, Colby was a cadet (midshipman) at the Naval Academy and has been among the first volunteers to register as a project leader with Honor Salute, then known as Final Salute. The program started in 2010 in Hospice of the Chesapeake in Pasadena, Md., for young military members at the start of their careers to pay tribute to veterans in the conclusion of their lifetimes.
“The program struck a chord with me,” said Colby, whose father and grandfather were in the army. Her grandfather was in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and her father served in the Marine Corps during the post-Vietnam era.
Now after being stationed at Camp Pendleton, Colby is now instrumental in honoring San Diego-area veterans as a volunteer with the Escondido-based Elizabeth Hospice and the Carlsbad-based Hospice of the North Coast.
Colby has seen veterans in their homes and in senior living communities across the county and has spearheaded efforts to recruit fellow Marines as volunteers in the nonprofit hospices.
The hospices conduct pinning ceremonies throughout the year to recognize aging veterans and thank them for their army support. Ceremonies are held in dining halls of area senior living communities and in bedside for hospice patients. The ceremony includes a “Final Salute” in which an active-duty service member salutes the veteran.
Since 2012, The Elizabeth Hospice has acknowledged over 2,300 veterans.
Colby and another Marines from Camp Pendleton who participate in the ceremonies spend some time talking with all the veterans. Some individuals are able to share stories and a few place in their old uniforms for the occasion, but others rely on family members to share the memories.
“It is especially significant for those who were not welcomed home or thanked for their support,” stated the hospice’s veterans specialist Lisa Marcolongo, whose husband served in the Marine Corps.
“Kimberly’s smile lights up a room as she shakes the hand of a veteran,” Marcolongo said.
For Colby, the best part are the stories and instant camaraderie which can be built. The hardest part is saying goodbye to the his or her family and friends.
“Honoring experts is something I consider a sacred responsibility for those of us who wear the fabric of our country,” Colby said.
Colby’s guidance for present service associates: “Go out of your way to honor veterans. It’s within our lifetime that we will lose all WWII and Korean War veterans. Their stories and sacrifices ought to be honored.”
The Elizabeth Hospice is seeking veterans and active-duty service associates to participate in its veteran pinning ceremonies.
For advice on The Elizabeth Hospice, see elizabethhospice.org and on Hospice of the North Coast, see hospicenorthcoast.org