Honoring Military Patients With a Final Salute

A new program within palliative care at Mayo Clinic is helping to formally honor and recognize military veteran patients for their service to their country in their last days of life.

The patient's prognosis wasn't good. His best friend, a fellow Vietnam War veteran, knew it. His team in the intensive care unit on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus knew it, too.

One day, as Angie Fredrickson Stockmo, a nurse, and Rachel Wiste, a nurse practitioner, were caring for the patient, the friend pulled them aside. "He said, 'I just want you girls to know you're caring for a hero,'" Stockmo tells us. The friend went on to regale them with stories of how many lives their patient had helped save during the Vietnam War. "We were very touched by that," Stockmo says.

Stockmo and Wiste decided they needed to do something to honor the patient during his final hours. Stockmo knew Mayo Clinic's medical ICU team keeps a supply of American flags in bereavement carts they developed for patients and their families. "I went over there and asked if I could have one," she tells us. "They graciously said yes."

With flag in hand, Stockmo went about finding a military veteran at Mayo Clinic who could present the flag to the patient. "I found one who had volunteered with our Hospice services here, and so I asked her if she'd present the flag to him," Stockmo says. She kindly responded to the call and presented the flag — from one veteran to another. The patient passed away a few hours later.

That touching shared moment gave birth to a new program for all military vets receiving inpatient palliative care at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, called Final Salute. Much like the national We Honor Veterans program that Mayo's Hospice program has partnered with, the Final Salute program honors palliative care patients who have served in any branch of the U.S. military. Each ceremony begins with the reading of a letter of appreciation and gratitude from the patient's care team. The veteran is then presented with an American flag and a final military salute.

Retired U.S. Navy Specialist Gary HalgrenStockmo tells us the dozen or so ceremonies they've done since the program began in November 2017 have all been meaningful for patients. They've also been meaningful for retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Maria Baer, an administrative assistant in the Department of Nursing at Mayo Clinic, who has performed most of the ceremonies, often "at a moment's notice," Stockmo tells us. "Maria's been unbelievably helpful."

Retired U.S. Navy Specialist Gary Halgren was the most recent patient to receive a flag and final salute, reports KIMT-TV News. The honor meant so much to him that his family included it in Gary's obituary after he passed away last month. The obituary reads, "He was proud to be recently honored in St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester with a flag ceremony for his service to this great country and the United States Navy."

Baer says she's proud to help honor that service on behalf of herself and all of Mayo Clinic. "It's an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to veterans and their families that their nation appreciates their service and that they are still part of the U.S. military family," she tells us.

You can read more about the palliative medicine team's Final Salute flag ceremonies here. Then be sure to honor us with your comments below before using the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.