I’ve been told that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine. That being said, Dannion Brinkley, who served in Vietnam, is a Marine still on a mission. Brinkley is the author of Saved by the Light, At Peace in the Light and Secrets of the Light; best-selling books which chronicle his near death experiences. If he didn’t cross over and come back, it’s hard to imagine why he spends such an inordinate amount of time with those who are dying. He has put in over 26 years of volunteer work at VA hospitals, with a total of about 28,000 hours by the bedside of 2,004 dying veterans and was actually with 418 of those veterans while they took their last breath. No matter what your belief is regarding the concept of near death experiences, you can’t deny Brinkley’s passion for Veterans. That passion became The Twilight Brigade, a non-profit organization dedicated to endof-life-care for Veterans.
Brinkley started the first Twilight Brigade in 1997 in Los Angeles, California. Since then chapters have been created in Birmingham, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Portland, Asheville and Spokane. Mike Wise, President of the Twilight Brigade Birmingham Chapter indicated that the Birmingham Brigade began about seven years ago.
Brinkley only has words of praise for the Birmingham, Alabama VA Hospital. “The VA is doing a lot of good work.” He said. “There are problems with some areas, but I give them highest marks for innovations. Birmingham is a center of the paradigm shift.” The work that Birmingham and Tuskegee are doing is a gateway according to Brinkley. “They should be praised as award winning programs. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.”
He cites their patient centered care as integrated models that will be moved to mainstream medicine. “What is important is the caregiver. The most important thing is the caregiver. Because it (health care) is moving from curative to palliative to hospice care.” He says, “This will happen outside and inside the VA.”
That passion became The Twilight Brigade, a non-profit organization dedicated to end-of-life-care for Veterans.
One component of the Twilight Brigade is giving the dying veteran someone who will listen. Over lunch, Dannion, Mike Wise and Jeff Khleif, Director of the Birmingham Twilight Brigade Chapter, talked about one of their visits to a patient, Louie Isom, at the Birmingham VA Hospital. Jeff described the vet as practically comatose and unresponsive when they walked into the room. But as the men took interest in him, the veteran began to sit up in his bed. Dannion quoted the man’s words, “You know no one talks to me. I served my country. No one listens. Nobody cares. People walk past the door and they look in and smile but that’s all I see. And here comes a herd of you white sons of bitches. All of a sudden someone cares.” Mike explained the experience further, “Later Louie Isom’s widow wrote us a letter and said the highlight of his stay at the VA was the visits from the Twilight Brigade. That touched our hearts.” Stories like that were plentiful. Brinkley even personally presented Tuskegee Airmen Harold Young and Walter Foreman with the Congressional Medal of Honor because the men were too ill to travel to Washington to receive their awards.
Twilight Brigade volunteers are trained to put aside their personal beliefs or agendas in order to simply listen to veterans who are in the process of dying. Volunteers maintain an attitude of acceptance, listen with respect and refrain from proselytizing. They never charge for their services of support. The simple joy of serving is the payoff. Mike Wise, a Marine veteran himself, expressed the reason he is in the Twilight Brigade, “Once you walk out of that hospital you feel better than when you walked in. I go in and ask who hasn’t had any visitors at all? Then you just walk in and shut up. The look on their faces that someone is listening is simply amazing. The way I look at it, the more I help the more I get back. I want the Twilight Brigade to be there for me someday. The final message I get out of it is to show everyone as much love as I can.” To paraphrase Brinkley, one must desire to appreciate others, admire others and then inspire others to aspire to be better. Mike and other volunteers in the Twilight Brigade are doing just that.
I had read somewhere that The Twilight Brigade had gone to Washington on behalf of veteran care so I asked Dannion what issues were represented. “The biggest issue is there has to be a standardized end of life model like the Twilight Brigade training. The VA is trying to do an online course to qualify to be at the bedside. It will fail. Everything else can be an online course, but care giving at the bedside of those who are going to die must be a hands-on program in order to be present. The volunteer cannot learn what is necessary on a computer. Veterans have issues that most people don’t have - traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, loss of limbs - and those issues came about because of their service to this country. We owe them more than an online course.”
Unfortunately, I was not able to go with any of the Brigade volunteers to visit vets. I was told that because of the Homeland Security issues, it takes up to five months to get a trained volunteer a badge to be able to volunteer bedside. The background check is so long and tedious that it is estimated the Twilight Brigade will lose about 45 % of those trained to be at the bedside of a dying vet. Brinkley is emphatic about making this process change. “I went to see six senators and 16 congressmen, to make that known. I will be meeting the heads of the VA in Birmingham as well.” He points out that from his point of view emotional and psychological damage from war is almost impossible to overcome. “I hear all the time that no one understands. People need to be visited. We need to learn to listen; learn to be present. No one need die alone.”
More and more veterans are in the process of dying. According to Brinkley (whose brain must be a 10 terabyte database when it comes to statistics) seventy to eighty thousand Veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam are dying each month due to illness and age. This number is expected to increase to 100,000 a month by 2012. He notes that as a country we have a two prong battle; elderly veterans and those vets returning from ten years of war. “We are about to witness over 600,000 soldiers who are going to come home from six tours who must learn how to reintegrate into society.” To drive home how these returning vets feel, Brinkley said, “Their standard statement to me is ‘I went to Fallujah and America went to the mall.’ That is a major disconnect. We Americans living free must be responsible for those who were responsible for us. That is both for those who are dying and those who are coming home. Now we must be there for them.”
The Birmingham Chapter of the Twilight Brigade hosts a 3 day volunteer training program several times a year at Unity church located on Highland Avenue. However, volunteers come from all walks of life and by no means are exclusive of the church. For more information on the Twilight Brigade visit their website at http://www.thetwilightbrigade. com. (Video of the Tuskegee Airmen Award Ceremony is available for viewing on the Twilight Brigade Website.)