Like any good soldier, Jim Simmons never leaves a man behind. As a veteran of the Air Force and Army, Simmons knows the importance of making sure his fellow man is taken care of, and he’s extended that philosophy beyond the battlefield and into civilian life as a volunteer.
Simmons, 72, now devotes an incalculable number of hours volunteering for The Hospice of East Texas, visiting military veterans under hospice care.
It can be a complicated business to decipher what a veteran or veteran’s widow is eligible for when it comes to end-of-life care.
But given Simmons’ near-encyclopedic knowledge of the system, he is able to provide information and assistance to countless veterans and their loved ones.
Thus, he regularly travels across 23 counties throughout East Texas, visiting with veterans and doing his best to make sure that their needs are met, even the ones that aren’t directly under the care of The Hospice of East Texas.
Simmons said it’s a pleasure to be able to help out his fellow veterans, whether it’s finding out what assistance they can receive or something as simple as securing an American flag for their surviving family.
But just as important is going in and being a friendly presence and allowing these veterans to tell their story to someone who has walked in their shoes.
“One of ’em the other day was telling me, ‘They’d give us these rations and I couldn’t eat those rations. So I stole beets off the ground and I would rub the sand off them ... I’d rather eat beets stolen off the Germans than the C-rations. Those C-rations gave me (an upset stomach),’” Simmons said “I can understand that! The empathy that you feel with them and showing that you empathize with them and understand what they’re saying and then thank them for their service … that means a lot to those older guys as they’re getting close to the end.”
Simmons began his military career in the Army, but later served as a forward air controller in the Air Force during Vietnam and has seen his share of war. In this way, he understands better than most the reluctance of some veterans to open up.
“There was one I was told, ‘Jim, he’s a really hardcore guy. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody.’ Then I went in, he was a younger guy. I said, ‘Hey buddy, what’s happening today? What don’t you tell me what’s goin’ on?’
“And then he opened up completely, and I found out what he needed. Turns out the VA had been jackin’ him around on his claim, and he was in hospice care and he really needed some help in that area. You just have to listen to what they tell you.”
Veterans just want to be heard, Simmons said. But sometimes, he admits, he feels like he gets more out of his visits than his patients do.
“Everybody’s got their story, and if you take the time to listen to their story, that helps that person and it helps you,” he said. “They think you’re doing them a big favor when they’re doing you a big favor. Because then you’re a part of their lives, and it enhances your life so very much.”
Marleen Elkins, community education volunteer coordinator for The Hospice of East Texas, said Simmons lifts her day every time he walks into her office, but also that he has a soothing effect on the patients that he visits.
“He can walk into a patient’s room and bring a calmness to it,” she said. “Many of them already know about their benefits, but he still comes as a support to that family, just to be there with them.”
Simmons is tireless, Ms. Elkins said, in his efforts to visit with as many veterans as possible. He even finds new ones in need before even Hospice does, she said.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going. It’s amazing when you see someone so devoted,” she said.