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Hospice program honors 92-year-old veteran for military service

On a bright June day, a fighter pilot added one final achievement to his long military career.

Major Gardner “Buzz” Tilton earned his wings in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War. He went on to serve the nation for 23 years, flying everything from fighter jets to transport planes in the Navy and then the New Hampshire Air National Guard.

Just a few weeks before his 93rd birthday, his family, friends and HopeHealth hospice team planned a veteran pinning ceremony to recognize that lifetime of service.

“The military is one thing my father-in-law talks about with a lot of clarity. But he is really humble, so to him, his 23 years were no big deal,” says Sharon Tilton. “It is a big deal, though. It was his life and his career.”

Together, his community and his care team made sure to honor it.

Veteran in navy suit jacket sits in a wheelchair surrounded by patriotic balloons
Major Gardner Tilton looks on at the wonderful event, surrounded by patriotic decorations

“A sense of closure and validation”

The idea came about when Major Tilton began hospice care at home last summer. As part of the intake process, HopeHealth asks every patient if they’re a veteran. When the answer is yes, volunteers offer to arrange veteran-specific support services, including a pinning ceremony with a representative from their branch of the military.

“Veterans tend to have special end-of-life needs. Many have experienced illness, isolation or trauma as a result of their service. Some never received recognition after returning home,” says Robin Blanchette, HopeHealth’s volunteer supervisor. “It’s been an honor for me to participate in veteran pinning ceremonies and to personally thank our veterans for their service. To see the smiles on their faces is truly a breathtaking experience.”

Many of these pinning ceremonies are intimate and informal, conducted at the bedside of a veteran in their final days. Others are more elaborate, depending on the veteran’s and family’s wishes. Major Tilton’s family decided to plan a big event around his pinning.

“For many veterans, the ceremony provides a sense of closure and validation, helping them to feel that their service was appreciated and recognized,” says Sharon. “We thought, what a nice idea. Let’s do something special.”

Related: A final salute: the grace and dignity of hospice care for veterans

Woman in red sweater leans over to hold hands with an elderly veteran sitting in a wheelchair wearing a navy blazer
HopeHealth volunteer Paulette Thomas leans over to congratulate Major Gardner Tilton

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house”

The family divvied up party-planning responsibilities, from decorating to securing a professional photographer. As an event space, they chose the beloved craft shed of Major Tilton’s late granddaughter, Abbey. They also reached out to alert local dignitaries; as the date approached, a pile of citations began to arrive at the house from the likes of the governor and secretary of state.

On the day of the ceremony, everyone wore red, white and blue, including Major Tilton, who presided from his wheelchair in a crisp navy blazer and maroon tie. To kick off festivities, the grandchildren and great grandchildren paraded in with flags, holding hands and pulling the youngest kids in a wagon. Grandson Ben sang the national anthem. The Rhode Island director of Veterans Affairs was in attendance, along with the district congressman.

Children march under a patriotic arch of balloons
Major Tilton’s grandchildren marched before the events

“So many people were shaking my father-in-law’s hand and hugging him and taking pictures with him. They were thanking him for his many years of service,” says Sharon. “It was such a great way to honor him.”

HopeHealth arranged for a Navy representative to present a pin, and then Major Tilton himself took the microphone. He shared a few memories, including that time he flew a presidential mission in support of Eisenhower’s trip to a NATO meeting in Paris.

But, as is his way, he ultimately deflected the spotlight. He concluded his remarks by drawing everyone’s attention to his wife of 63 years, Carol, “the most supportive person,” he said. “Thank you, dear.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Sharon.

Related: “Dear Veteran”: A letter-writing campaign reaches veterans at the end of life

“He’s still so honored by it”

Five months later, Major Tilton continues to receive hospice care from a variety of HopeHealth home health aides, nurses, chaplains, social workers and volunteers.

“I’ve been so impressed by the holistic approach. They’re meeting all these different needs,” says Sharon. “There have been people there to support my mother-in-law. The doctor is so gentle but direct. The nurse spends a lot of time helping me understand everything, so I can teach the rest of the family too. I love that full circle.”

As for Major Tilton, the pinning ceremony has proven to be a gift that keeps giving — a lasting joy in this final chapter of life.

The family compiled the day’s clips and photos into a YouTube video, and he loves rewatching it and sharing it. Thanks to local media coverage, he’s even received letters from other veterans.

“One of the things I think the pinning helped with is social isolation. The fact that he got to see so many people that day, that’s so important,” says Sharon. “Now he’s enjoying the aftermath. He loves talking about it. He’s still so honored by it all.”

In fact, Major Tilton recently shared with his family that he’d like to get started on a new project.

“He just asked me to print pictures from the pinning ceremony, so he can make a scrapbook,” says Sharon.

volunteers Paulette Thomas and Matthew Campbell, an officer in the US Navy, took part in a special pinning ceremony for Major Gardner S. Tilton arranged by his family.
Volunteers Paulette Thomas and Matthew Campbell, an officer in the US Navy, took part in a special pinning ceremony for Major Gardner S. Tilton arranged by his family.

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