After 27 years in the military, Richard Dederer was ready to retire. So when he came across a job opening as coordinator for the We Honor Veterans program at SSM Health at Home Hospice in St. Louis, he thought it would be a great fit for his wife, who was working as the director of a hospice program at the time. “She said, ‘Yeah, you should apply!’ ” he said, laughing. “I said, ‘I’m retired!’ ”ExtraMile_vets_190x127.jpg

(Pictured right: Richard Dederer presents a plaque to a military veteran enrolled in the SSM Health at Home Hospice. Dederer is coordinator of the We Honor Veterans program.)

But Dederer did apply and was offered the job — the work appealed to him on a deeply personal level. Twenty-five percent of the people who die in the U.S. are veterans; 680,000 veterans die each year. In the face of these staggering numbers, the We Honor Veterans program was created six years ago by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program focuses on “respectful inquiry, compassionate listening and grateful acknowledgement” of veterans’ service.

At SSM Health at Home Hospice, which provides care for the terminally ill outside an institutional setting, We Honor Veterans first identifies any entering veteran. This process happens during intake with the hospice social worker. Next, Dederer pays the veteran a visit, presenting a plaque honoring the veteran’s service. “Any time you go out and simply say, ‘Thank you,’ it’s really an exciting moment — for me and for the veterans themselves,” says Dederer. “It’s almost like a time machine. It puts them back on the ship, back in the foxhole, back in the Air Force, when they were young.”

On more than one occasion, this simple, respectful acknowledgement leads to veterans recounting stories of their time serving in the military. And often, family members stop Dederer as he’s leaving the room, revealing that they’ve never heard these stories from their loved one before. “It opens this space, just to be there, be present and to hear them tell their stories,” Dederer says. “To have caregivers and loved ones witness that — it’s just amazing. I can’t take any credit for it.”

But Carol Leverett, the regional director for SSM Health at Home Hospice, gives Dederer credit for the way he is able to interact with the veterans, allowing them the safety and space to open up. “I think it’s his presence,” she says. “He is, with any conversation, with anyone at any point in time, very present in the moment. He’s not thinking about picking his kids up from school or something else he has to do. ... He genuinely cares, and that is what the veterans see.”

Dederer’s experience in the military also helps, she says. “He has walked in their shoes. We’ve all gone through the training — that’s part of We Honor Veterans — but just [like] anybody else, I think you’re a better hospice nurse if you’ve suffered loss,” says Leverett. “As a veteran, he’s able to serve, not only because he’s a veteran, but working in hospice as well, because he himself has lost. He has two assets there that are key to working in end of life.”

Besides Dederer’s compassionate and respectful demeanor, Leverett says, his experience as a veteran and his willingness to share the kinds of emotions veterans may struggle with, such as unresolved grief and survivor’s guilt, have helped the hospice nursing team understand what its patients need during end-of-life care. According to Dederer: “When a veteran is given a terminal diagnosis, a lot of the previous wounds of service come bubbling to the surface. The program gives us an opportunity to talk about that, and gives the veteran avenues to process that.”

There’s more to We Honor Veterans than the acknowledgement of service, as important as that piece is. Dederer also acts as a navigator for families, helping them learn about benefits they may be eligible for through the Department of Veterans Affairs and even reaching out to the VA on the patient’s behalf if needed. He’s created a simple but thorough manual of eligibility options to help families that includes all the documents they need to fill out to apply for benefits. “This way, they don’t have to go searching for it,” he explains. “They can even handwrite it and give it to us. We’ll type it up for them. When a family is facing a ton of end-of-life decisions, having someone come in and take a little bit off their plate can be incredibly helpful.”

While hospice care can be a difficult time for all involved, Dederer’s presence has brought relief, connection and even joy to veterans and their families. “There are so many smiles in this program,” says Dederer.