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A Purposeful Visit to Great Lakes National Cemetery (Part II)

So many of our G.I.s waste away in Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals—alone, lonely, forgotten by anyone who might care. Unfortunately, many do not get well enough to leave, to lead ordinary lives.

Great Lakes National Cemetery

Who better deserves top-notch medical attention than these men and women who served our country, putting life and limb on line to preserve freedom? Didn’t we always feel safe here in this country, even though we heard during World War II that the enemy had come dangerously close to our shores?

Here we are now, in the 21st century, concerned that we are being targeted by radicals in our own country determined to change the whole world. We gather at venues defying their dreams of destroying us and our way of life. They want to send us back to live in the Dark Ages. Daily we step out to follow the everyday rhythms of our lives, wondering whether we will be safe and will rejoin our loved ones safely at the end of the day.

Some of our armed forces died on the field of combat, some came home and lived ordinary lives. Many need hospitalization to get well, and some of them deteriorate in VA hospitals. But, worse yet, some come home to nothingness and commit suicide. How dreadful is that?

Television reports often say how well our warfighters are treated in VA hospitals, while when out and about former armed services members grumble about how little medical attention they are receiving, or how they have to beg for medication. Sometime the medical attention they require takes months to receive. Flaws in the system are glaring. Merely saying “thank you” to them for serving surely is not enough. We send billions in aid overseas, to countries with questionable loyalty to us, but when veterans complain about the lack of help they need we can only shake our head wondering what is wrong with the system. We need to be helping our own before sending all that money overseas.

Michigan is apparently way behind in veterans’ services of all kinds. If I were younger and stronger, I would be leading some kind of battle to find out why. How many phone calls does a veteran have to make to get the information they need, whether for housing, jobs, or medical attention? I surely do not know the system, but at one point I got in touch with the governor’s office for information and a sense of direction; that did not result in success.

I will repeat, the men and women, our soldiers, who served or serve our country to preserve the American way of life should have their needs taken care of in a timely fashion. It is not enough to provide them with a final resting place with a marker in a National Cemetery. By the way, if you are thinking burials here are at no cost, think again. At least that was our experience. As I write this, I admit I have not contacted the proper authorities to find out otherwise.

My husband Bob was a smoker starting in his teens, but he stopped smoking cigarettes over 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it was too late. He developed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and had breathing problems that magnified in later years. When he finally decided to avail himself of VA services, he was given some medication, of course at a financial cost to him, but the man was never offered oxygen.

I wanted to go with him on these appointments, but he would not let me. I don’t have the benefit of knowing how assertive he was in his approach to asking for medical treatment. I do know this: In the years before he died, breathing was torture. He would take a few steps, and it took 15 minutes or more for him to catch his breath. When I asked why he had not asked for oxygen, he just shook me off.

One particularly bad breathing day, he said, “I think it is time to go to the hospital.” He still wanted to drive, as he always did. We drove the half-hour trip to Gaylord, Mich., and that was it… I watched through the early morning hours as they administered breathing treatments with masks over his face. He just didn’t want any more of it. He pulled off the mask.

Late the next morning, I told him I had to return to the cottage to get some rest and to shower. He asked if I was going to return the next day, and I replied that of course I would.

He didn’t quite make it to age 81.

He did the same thing that my mother did when she was in the hospital: waited for me to leave, after I had spent the entire night and early hours of the day, to pass away. She knew what a hardship it would be for me to live life without her. I was her youngest, and she and I took care of each other.

Bob, too, waited until I left to will himself to die. I don’t know how I got through all that—alone, on my own. Today, I hate being a writer, reliving some of the horrid details of the end of our life together after 52 years of marriage. I pray he is with his parents, his favorite cousin Jim Lovay, and his army buddy Mike from Wisconsin.

To leave on a high note: Bob served during the Korean Conflict but got lucky. I always teased him that he never saw a day of combat since he was sent to La Rochelle, France, where his group built housing camps for soldiers. It was a joke that made us both laugh. That is where he ended his service to his country. When I asked him to go to Europe for a vacation, his response was, “I’ve already been there!”

I have the remnants of a rosary he bought on his visit to Lourdes. He was a good Catholic boy who even as an adult attended early morning mass. Then he met an Armenian girl. He was 29, I was 23, and my father advised me that since Bob attended church so often, our marriage should take place at his church, St. Michael’s, because we usually attended St. Sarkis Armenian Church only on holidays, and for weddings. And so it was.

I became Mrs. Robert Kessel. Later, when I began writing for the Armenian Weekly, I became Betty Apigian Kessel. I could not deny my Armenianism and my long history with it. I do feel cheated that I was not wed in the Armenian Church. I particularly love that part of the wedding ceremony that has bride and groom kneeling with their foreheads together tied with a golden cord and cross. That thought crushes me every time. But Catholic or Armenian Apostolic, we made it work.

The year war 2005, and I remember exactly where on the front page of the Detroit Free Press the article appeared stating a National Cemetery would be built in Holly, Mich., and at the time it seemed a coincidence to me that, accompanied by Bob and my buyers, we had sold a very large section of acreage in Holly just a few years earlier.

Remember our veterans, and let’s do all we can to make their lives mean something to them and to all of us. We are eternally grateful for them for their contribution to our freedom.

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