CHARLESTON — Approximately 30 percent of South Coast Hospice patients are veterans. Through "We Honor Veterans," a program of the Veterans Administration and National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, veteran patients are recognized and thanked for their service and sacrifice, if they are comfortable reflecting on their military experiences. One veteran patient agreed to share some of his memories during his days in the Army during the Korean War, and what his hospice experience has been like thus far.
Richard Baillargeon is new to the community of Coos Bay. He and his wife had been residing in Wisconsin earlier this year. When Richard's health began declining, it was decided that Richard and his wife — he in his early 80s, and she in her late 70s — would benefit from the support of being closer to family. Their daughter and grandson, who were also fairly new to Coos Bay, decided that they would pitch in and help take care of Richard.
The four family members moved into a home near Charleston, and soon after, Richard signed up for hospice support through South Coast Hospice. He had been receiving hospice services back in Wisconsin, so this was somewhat familiar to the family. Richard and his family expressed gratitude for the support to help the family in keeping him comfortable at home.
A social and outgoing man, Richard seems to enjoy sharing his thoughts and stories about his life's experiences through the years. He and his wife, who have been married for nearly 60 years, can recount details of each other's lives with an accuracy that only comes when you've known someone since you were a kid. But there are some stories that Richard brought back home from the Army that are uniquely his.
He enlisted in the Army at the age of 17, and on his 18th birthday, was stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. During the first four weeks of his basic training, he injured himself and was laid up following surgery on his leg. After weeks of recovery, Richard managed to finish his training, but when it was time for the graduation ceremonies, a wobble in his gait made him stand out to his superiors. "They could see me limping around, so they pulled me out of the parade," he said.
From South Carolina, Richard and some of his fellow soldiers were transported to the West Coast by train. Their destination was Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. There, Richard and his fellow GIs waited for a ship to transport them across the Pacific Ocean. Their destination was Japan. During this time, Richard says that he was enrlled in classes to study radiology and bacteriology, and to this day he says he is amazed at how he was able to keep up in his studies of these subjects. "I don't know how I did it," he said.
Throughout this time, Richard met other members of the United Nations Command forces. One group stood out in particular: He recounted his memories and feelings of great respect for the soldiers from Thailand who were being transported to the south of Japan to join the military efforts. "Those guys were very nice, very respectful," Richard said. "We hardly understood each other, because I didn't speak Thai, and there was only one guy out of all of them who spoke English. But we got along. I know that if I ever went back to Thailand, I'd have friends there."
He also laughs about getting his nickname, "Frenchie," during his time in the Army. "Everyone would have a hard time pronouncing my name, so I just told them, 'Look, just call me Frenchie, and I'll know who you're talking to,'"
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Richard remembered an occasion when he was in southern Japan and had some time off. He said that he had a night on the town to relax, and managed to get somewhat intoxicated. Walking back to the barracks in pitch darkness, Richard said, he fell into a deep ditch. "I couldn't see nothing. I just remember yelling for help. Pretty soon, I heard the voices of some African American soldiers. They asked me, 'Man, what are you doing down there?' and I told them that I had fallen. If it wasn't for them, I have no idea how I'd have gotten out of that." This was memorable to Richard because segregation was still common in American society during that time, and Richard says he was "surprised" by the willingness of the African American soldiers to help him out.
Richard service experience included his time served around the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, an area on the border between China and North Korea. This was a significant campaign in the Korean War, where many UN Command lives were lost when Chinese troops attempted to surround the area. Richard said, "Someone was trying to murder or kill you, and you'd do the same to them." He remembers the Turkish soldiers, who had long bayonets, fighting with Chinese soldiers armed with "burp guns," a type of lightweight submachine gun. "Those Turks would just run right up to those Chinese soldiers, no fear. They'd want to take them as prisoners of war, keep them alive."
After the Marines had left the Chosin Reservoir, Richard and other Army engineers stayed and repaired bunkers to get them back to being usable again. He said, "I went in as an infantryman, and came out as an engineer. I have no idea how that happened. I did like to blow things up!"
When Richard's four-year commitment for service was up, he returned to his family in Massachusetts and reconnected with the young girl he met before he enlisted. They began dating and, shortly after, decided to marry.
Richard's service in the Army earned him a Korean Service Medal, two Bronze Service Stars, a United Nations Service Medal, a National Defense Service Medal, and a Combat Infantryman Badge. It is this last award that Richard says makes him the most proud. "That one means more to me than all the others. That's the one."
Richard said his experience with hospice services has been meaningful, and he has enjoyed having the support of his South Coast Hospice Care Team checking on him and his family regularly. His hospice social worker, Cheryl, presented Richard with a commemorative certificate of appreciation and a lapel pin from the "We Honor Veterans" program shortly after Richard became a patient, thanking him for his service to the country and expressing the gratitude of the agency in particular. Richard said he thinks the program "sounds like a good idea," and doesn't mind answering questions about his experiences. "It's nice to be able to have someone to share this with," he said.
For more information about the "We Honor Veterans" program or South Coast Hospice services, please call 541-269-2986 or visit schospice.org.
Alison Mello, MSW, CSWA, is an admission social worker and the veteran patient liaison at South Coast Hospice.