During an Empath Honors pinning ceremony, a veteran volunteer presents a special pin and certificate while thanking a fellow veteran for their service. Family members and friends often attend. The event can be emotional for veterans and those who love them.

Pinnings are sometimes somber affairs. Occasionally, though, humor breaks out.

Mike Murphy, Tidewell Honors Veterans volunteer

Mike Murphy, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is a volunteer with Tidewell Honors Veterans, which serves Empath Health patients in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. He remembered a family that flew in from Boston to attend a pinning for a veteran.

At the end of the ceremony, the mother asked her 5-year-old daughter if she’d like to sing a song for the honoree, her grandfather.

The child happily obliged, belting out “A B C D E F G.”

Murphy has been a veteran volunteer for four years. He said he finds the pinning ceremonies rewarding, giving him a sense of gratitude for the nation’s military heroes.

At a pinning for a 100-year-old Army veteran who invaded France on D-Day, Murphy read details of what happened on that day to make sure friends and family knew the true cost of service.

“The veteran and family are dealing with the most difficult, most stressful and emotionally exhausting period in their lives,” Murphy said. “If I can give that veteran a flashback to a time they can say, ‘You know, I did something important; I made a contribution,’ maybe it will give them some peace with the present situation. Hopefully it will add something to an already good legacy, give them a sense of pride.”

Empath Health’s hospice affiliates – Suncoast Hospice, Tidewell Hospice and Hospice of Marion County – are Level Five Partners of the We Honor Veterans program, an initiative of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that recognizes the need to better serve military veterans and their families. This commitment to acknowledge veterans for their service extends throughout all areas of Empath Health under the Empath Honors program.

An essential part of the Empath Honors mission is to recruit and deploy veteran volunteers to help Empath Health support veteran patients. Veterans Serving Veterans volunteers perform recognition ceremonies for their comrades and offer camaraderie only fellow veterans can relate to. They also facilitate the Veterans History Project, where veteran stories are collected in partnership with the Library of Congress.

Tom Althauser, Tidewell Honors Veterans volunteer

Tom Althauser, who served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, is a new volunteer with Tidewell Honors Veterans. He had a good experience with hospice in Maryland and was pleased to help after reading about the veterans program.

“My favorite part of volunteering for this program is the comfort that the pinning ceremony often seems to provide the primary caregiver,” Althauser said. “Families are obviously in pain while their loved one succumbs to a final illness. Having a fellow veteran visit and display genuine care and respect to them and their dying loved one eases that pain, at least for a few minutes at that moment in time. And, perhaps, as they later go through the grieving process the visit provides a few additional flashes of comfort.”

Volunteers are vital to non-profit healthcare organizations like Empath Health. During Fiscal Year 2022, Empath’s 2,000 volunteers provided almost 200,000 hours of service that represented more than $5 million of value to the company. In 2019, the nation’s hospice volunteers generated more than $469 million in annual savings, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) reported.

Unfortunately, Empath Health has suffered a reduction of volunteers that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Vice President of Volunteer Engagement Stacy Groff, volunteer numbers are down 30 to 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels, depending on the service line. The volunteers who left during the pandemic are slowly returning.

Althauser encourages other veterans to explore the Empath Honors program.

“If you think you would like to help, the wonderful volunteer onboarding specialist in your area will give you information about what you could do to help and will lead you down the path to get there,” he said. “And when you complete your training, one of the great volunteer coordinators will give you all the support you need with pinning ceremonies, as well as with any other volunteer role you may wish to fill.”

For more information about volunteering in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, call (727) 523-3440. In Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, call (941) 441-2061. Information and an application are available at EmpathVolunteers.org.