After her father experienced several falls, Regina Clark, 61, realized he needed more care than he was receiving living in her home. That's when her dad’s hospice social worker said that he was eligible to live in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) nursing home.
Up until that point, Clark’s father, John O’Dowd, had been in and out of long-term care facilities that cost thousands of dollars a month and had lived with her other two siblings. But thanks to his military service and condition, a portion of the bill could be covered for his stay at a veterans home.
“Vets are very determined. Anybody that’s ever cared for an elderly person knows they want to walk and get up,” she said. “My dad was always mentally with it. But his body was just breaking down.”
Because O’Dowd was an end-of-life patient, he was able to move up the waiting list and eventually a VA nurse knocked on Clark’s door to give her father a full clinical exam. The next day she received a call and was told that he was approved and could move in within a week.
“I was shocked at how quickly they got him in. And he ended up being in the VA nursing home for months before he passed,” she said.
A proud Air Force veteran O’Dowd, who died in June 2019 at 91, was a bombardier-navigator for the Air Force from 1950 to 1956. He completed several missions throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
When he returned to civilian life as a first lieutenant, he often wore an Air Force veteran baseball cap. He later retired after teaching in the New York City public school system for 20 years.
“I attended an Air Force reunion with him once in San Antonio, Texas, and met the men who he flew with,” said Clark. “They were an incredible bunch of pilots and navigators. Some had flown in four wars: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Gulf Conflict."
Sentimental yet difficult moments
Almost every day during his final months of life, Clark would take the half-hour drive to visit her father at the veterans home in Montrose, New York.
She was in the room during the initial exam with Simon Kassabian, M.D., whom she found to be one of the “kindest physicians” she’d ever come across.
“He was wonderful. And my father immediately connected with Dr. Kassabian and really liked him very much,” Clark said.
Some staff members were better than others, but they never neglected his needs, even when he would yell at them for asking him to do things he didn’t want to do.
“There were some lovely times. For example, I went one day and Mass was being said by an Army chaplain. He was so wonderful, tender and loving,” she said. Meanwhile, “some vets were hunched over in wheelchairs, almost looking comatose. If you could imagine a room full of elderly men at different stages. Some were totally out of it, some were probably medicated and some couldn't walk.”
Because her father only had physical challenges, it was difficult for him to be surrounded by so many veterans who were suffering from cognitive illnesses.
O’ Dowd's final roll call
Although every visit was difficult, Clark knew the end was near the last time she came to see him.
“I begged the doctor to give him whatever he needed to make him comfortable,” she said.
An hour after he received a sedative, the chaplain came to bless her dad and told her that he had given him his last rites and that he was ready to go.
A few days after his death, Clark went to the nursing home to pick up some of her dad’s belongings. She walked down to his room and saw there was a table with an American flag and a candle with her dad’s name on it. Draped across his bedwas an American flag. The nurse then asked Clark if she could stay for his final roll call.
“I really didn't know what she was talking about. So, I said, ‘Of course.’”
The home’s residents, representing all branches of service and holding American flags, lined the hallway. Many, with the aid of wheelchairs, walkers or canes, were at attention along the wall.
The nurse then recited a prayer and began the roll call, calling out several of the men’s names who responded, “here.” She then called out 1st Lt. John M. O’Dowd several times, but the room remained silent. The playing of Taps followed.
“It was absolutely beautiful. And when the service was over, these gentlemen — some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t — came up to me, just to express their condolences, it was unbelievable,” said Clark.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.