Bob Smith, 77, of Joliet, recalled his joy at recently conversing with a 103-year-old World War II veteran.
Smith said he was helping to present a program at The Timbers of Shorewood about veterans services at Lightways Hospice and Serious Illness Care in Joliet. He said he saw a World War II cap on the veteran and approached the 103-year-old man after the presentation.
“I said, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ and he said, ‘Yes, you can,’ ” Smith said. “He kept calling me ‘young man.’ I said the last World War II hand I shook was my father’s before he passed away.’”
Smith is active in several area veterans organizations, but he’s especially dedicated to the veterans program at Lightways for the past 20 years. Smith’s wife, the late Mary Jo Smith, became executive director at the Joliet hospice center in 1986.
“I volunteer with anything they need,” Smith said. “We have a stronger veterans program now than they did back in the day. ... We have a pinning ceremony when someone is admitted to hospice, whether at the home or at their home.”
Smith said the pinning ceremony is not very structured.
“Mostly, we let the veterans talk,” Smith said.
Laureen Crotteau, media relations and events manager for Lightways, said Smith is very active in the Joliet hospice’s veterans program, as are several other veterans.
But the program needs more volunteers, Crotteau said.
I just have a feeling that one of these days, there will be no one to care about the veterans.”— Bob Smith of Joliet, Army veteran and volunteer
Smith said Lightways hosts an annual breakfast for veterans, and he assists with that, too.
“And then once a year we have a program where we read the names of the veterans who are in the hospice program who have passed away,” Smith said. “And we invite their families to come and other people that want to come. It’s done very, very well.”
Smith said 400 veterans’ names were read at the 2022 event since Lightways did not hold the program in 2021. The flag at the hospice center is raised, and taps is played in the background. Bagpipers play patriotic music, such as “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” Smith said.
“We have a reading of ‘In Flanders Field,’ ” Smith said. “And we give out a small American flag to the families.”
Smith said the memorial is for the families and the veterans breakfast is for the veterans.
“You put a roomful of old military guys in there, and they have a good time,” Smith said.
He said he also helps with presentations at outside organizations, such as The Timbers of Shorewood retirement facility, to discuss “what hospice does for them.”
Helping veterans is Smith’s way of honoring the service of all veterans.
The importance of honoring veterans
Smith said he was living in a small community in Ohio when he was drafted in May 1966. His father, Everett Smith, was a 33-year “lifer” in the military at that time, and Smith was always surrounded with Army veterans, whom he addressed by their military rank, Smith said.
Smith said he spent eight weeks in Fort Knox, Kentucky, for his training, six weeks at Fort Lee in Virginia for his advanced training and eventually ended up in Belgium as a cook.
Veterans weren’t treated well when Smith came home, so he was more than ready to get married, raise a family and concentrate on his career at the former Caterpillar plant in Joliet.
A lot of veterans – and Smith said he was one of them – didn’t talk about their military service.
“If someone asked us if we were veterans, we said, ‘Yes,’ ” Smith said. “But we didn’t stand out and say we’re vets. But that’s changed now. I’m very proud to be a veteran.”
Smith is a member of Disabled American Veterans. He said he donated money to help fund three national veterans memorials when they were first getting started: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the World War II Memorial and – especially – the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
“It took a while for women to get recognition for what they did,” Smith said.
Smith recently returned to Ohio to help out with the Moving Wall, a traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He’s volunteered at local Moving Wall events, too, mostly to help visitors find names on the panel, he said.
“You don’t see a lot of veterans come out until nighttime,” Smith said. “They’re quiet, and they have their own thoughts. They know where their friends are on the wall. They don’t come to look but to say goodbye.”
Smith said it’s important to honor veterans for their service.
“I just have a feeling that one of these days, there will be no one to care about the veterans,” Smith said. “Even though I didn’t serve in combat, I gave up my life for my country, and I’m darned proud of it.”