It’s a slow and emotionally draining experience watching someone you love breathe their last breaths. There are moments you feel eager for their pain to end; other moments when you wish you had a little more time.

Last summer, for nearly 3 painful weeks, my mother, 2 cousins and I said our goodbyes to my uncle, James C. Dolan, who passed away at age 67 at the hospice at Togus VA.

My mother reflected on her childhood with her younger brother; my cousins on their own childhoods with their father; me on the man who I grew up with, who I quickly realized I hardly knew.

I had heard the stories of how he had enlisted in the Army as soon as he turned 18 years old and was soon sent to east Asia as the Vietnam War reached boiling point. He reached the rank of E5 and was a crew chief on a helicopter in the 101st airborne division.

What I hadn’t heard was that he was aboard a helicopter that crashed in the jungle amid enemy fire, and helped save his fellow crewmembers.

I knew he was proud of his service, and that he became a police officer and corrections officer later in life so that he could continue to serve his country.

What I didn’t know was how he quietly helped countless friends and fellow veterans get jobs and better their lives. He never bragged or boasted, just offered a helping hand.

He was the union representative at the Downeast Correctional Facility for many years, and I learned he was recognized for saving multiple lives, including a child who was choking and several inmates from a fire in a cell. He also is credited with advocating for and establishing equal rights for female corrections officers at the jail.

All the previously-unheard stories of his heroism and good deeds that my cousins learned about their dad from his friends and co-workers after his death made it all the more bittersweet.

So, driving past the cemetery and the hospice wing at Togus VA on Friday meant so much more to me than being a symbol of his death. It has become a symbol of a life fully lived; a remembrance of a man I knew, but who had so much more to know than most of us realized.

Serving your country has always had special meaning in my family. With two grandfathers who served in World War II, numerous aunts and uncles who served, and generations of soldiers and patriots in my heritage, I couldn’t help but grow up being proud of the men and women that put their lives on the line to maintain and protect our freedoms.

That same sense of pride was on full display during the Last Roll Call and ceremony of remembrance Friday afternoon, where more than 100 people gathered to honor their veterans who have died over the past year.

The keynote speaker for the service was Penny Jackson Pray, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who spoke about her Vietnam veteran husband, Bruce, and his death at Togus VA. She spoke about the amazing caregivers and the care he received, and how she was treated like family by the staff. She said she was always greeted by hugs, smiles and was called by her name.

“I really needed that in the last place I saw my husband,” Penny said.

She talked about a moment she had in the chapel when he was getting ready to pass, trying to make sense of it all. Penny said she gained a little bit of clarity, realizing that “life is what it’s meant to be, even if I didn’t understand it.”

Bruce, she said, died from a type of carcinoma that is caused by a parasite found in Vietnam.

Through her husband’s death, she said, “I learned how important it is to say ‘thank you for your service.'”

At the end of the ceremony, 139 names of veterans who have died over the past year at Togus were read aloud, followed by a moment of silence and the playing of Taps.

In that silence I couldn’t help but be moved by all the families of the 139. There was power in that moment. We grieved together, and together I think we all gained a better appreciation for our country and for the veterans who so bravely served it.

Unlike most trials in life, when we reflect on our own path, the death of a loved one offers a unique chance to reflect on their life.

And for veterans, oh what lives they have lived.

C. Marla Hoffman is a copy editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

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