By Rich Pollack
Col. Claude Schmid was wrapping up his 31-year U.S. Army career when he was assigned to lead the military’s wounded warrior flight evacuations. As chief of operations, Schmid would climb into the massive hold of a C-17 cargo plane — a “hospital with wings” — and welcome injured service members returning home, some still strapped to gurneys.
“I had the opportunity to talk to thousands of injured service members and learn about their stories,” said Schmid, a Highland Beach resident for the past three years.
That experience would set the foundation for Veteran’s Last Patrol, a nonprofit organization Schmid founded in late 2019 that connects veteran volunteers to former service men and women receiving hospice care.
Schmid says that while representing senior military leadership for the wounded warriors program from 2010 to 2013, he saw firsthand “the importance of companionship during moments of great adversity.”
Often those veterans, and sometimes family members, who would be waiting to be escorted off the plane faced an uncertain future of additional hospitalizations or coping with lingering injuries.
“A lot of times you’re scared,” Schmid said. “Knowing someone cares about you and can relate to you is crucial.”
What he saw on the plane was similar to what he sees now with veterans in hospice.
As part of the program he runs as founder and CEO, Veteran’s Last Patrol recruits veterans to carve time for one-on-one visits with those in hospice care, visiting veterans in facilities or in private homes.
The bond volunteers and veterans share from having served in the military can often be therapeutic for both the ailing vet and his or her visitor.
“Most volunteers say they get more out of it than they give,” said Schmid, 62.
Veteran’s Last Patrol holds ceremonies to honor veterans in hospice, often presenting them with plaques recognizing their service and bringing gifts, sometimes including honor quilts.
A third element of the program — now operating in 24 states — is providing support for veterans in hospice care, helping with basic needs and with fulfilling last wishes.
For Schmid, the Veteran’s Last Patrol helped fill a void that came after he retired in 2013. A graduate of Wofford College in South Carolina where he joined the ROTC program, Schmid was commissioned as a tank officer coming out of college and moved up through the ranks.
In 2004 and 2005, Schmid was deployed to Iraq when he was a commander of the Army’s Infrastructure Security Force, which was tasked with protecting critical facilities in northern Iraq, including oil fields.
He returned to Iraq in 2007 as the commander overseeing training of Iraqi soldiers. There were 17 schools throughout the country under his command.
After completing his work with the wounded warriors program, Schmid retired and began searching for a way to translate into civilian life what he learned during his last assignment.
“I was looking for something to do that would have some connection with what I did in the service,” he said.
Schmid traces the inspiration for Veteran’s Last Patrol to his early years, when he listened to his mother talk about her experiences volunteering with hospice patients and the challenges they faced.
“I wondered, ‘What happens to military veterans when they go into hospice?’” he said.
What he discovered is that hospice programs across the country have a tough time getting volunteers and even a harder time getting military volunteers.
Through outreach to veterans organizations, social media and other tools, Veteran’s Last Patrol has filled that void and provided friendship and support to people with not much time left.
Even before he founded the organization, Schmid had begun visiting veterans in hospice care.
“I remember my first patient very well, a vet named Harold,” he said. “He kept telling me he had ‘a wonderful, wonderful life.’”
The name of the organization, Schmid says, reflects the bond between the hospice patients and the volunteers.
“Veterans understand the concept of patrols and you don’t want to go patrolling alone,” he said.
As Veteran’s Last Patrol has evolved, it has created programs that raise awareness and funds to support it. The organization holds an Honor Ride for Veterans and has created Operation Holiday Salute in which people can write holiday cards to veterans they’ve never met.
Last year cards were sent to 7,000 veterans and this year Schmid is hoping to reach 10,000. To be a part of Operation Holiday Salute or to learn more about Veteran’s Last Patrol, visit www.veteranlastpatrol.org. Click on “events” for the holiday salute.
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