When Marines visit dying veterans, Job No. 1 is being there
The Kansas City Star

Editor's note: The Rev. Arthur Eggers, one of the hospice patients featured in this story, died Sept. 24. Our condolences to his family. His obituary was published in The Star on Friday, Sept. 26. You can read it here.

He’s gone now, so no one can know how much the visit truly meant to him.

But those who loved him know one thing: When two U.S. Marines paid a visit to Pat McMahon’s Kansas City home last month, he seemed like anything but a dying man.

Actually, as the 61-year-old paced around his living room, snapping off one-liners and reminiscing about his years in Vietnam, the old Army vet never seemed more alive, those who knew him say.

His visitors, Staff Sgt. Deuntae Preston and Cpl. Adam Austin, came courtesy of a new partnership between Kansas City’s Heartland Home Health Care & Hospice and the Marine Corps. The program matches single Marines in need of something to do with ailing vets who wouldn’t mind a little company.

Stacy Higgins, Heartland’s volunteer coordinator, came up with the program. She asked the Marines to get involved after noticing that one-quarter of hospice patients are veterans.

“If you were a prisoner of war in World War II, well, that’s nice to share the story with me,” she says. “But for someone who is serving our country today to come in and give them that time — now that’s powerful.”

Sixteen Marines volunteered after Higgins made a presentation to them in April. Preston, the president of a local group of single Marines, saw the benefit in such a joint venture.

“I want to do this for what they did for us before,” he says. “Because the day might come when I’m that patient.”

In Pat McMahon’s home, Austin and Preston sit stiffly at his dining room table. Austin, a fresh-faced Marine originally from central Ohio, picks up a photo album and points at a picture of a young soldier.

“So this one’s you?” he asks.

“No,” McMahon says. “That’s a friend of mine. … His wife divorced him. He said (McMahon puts a whiny, high-pitched tone in his voice), ‘My wife divorced me!’ And I said, “Hell … Everyone knows she’s a *****!”

That does it. The Marines’ carefully controlled sense of propriety melts like a marshmallow in a microwave. They burst out laughing. As soon as they do, the man they’d come to visit is no longer a dying hospice patient. He’s their friend.

This day McMahon is a bear of a man in blue jeans, green T-shirt and large wire-rimmed glasses that seem to balance on his thickly bristled white push-broom mustache. An oxygen tube hangs from his neck and coils through his home like a clear plastic snake. He speaks with an uncomfortably low and gravelly voice.

He tells stories from the war and laughs more than he has in months.

His wife, Janice, even joins in the fun.

“I (asked him once), ‘Did you guys ever do anything ridiculous in Vietnam?” she says. “And he said, ‘We stole a truckload of beer.’ ”

“Oh, we stole more than that,” her husband corrects her.

“How many?”

“Sixteen truckloads of beer.”

“What did you do with it all?”

“Sold it.”

“To who?”

“Everybody. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, just about anybody who wanted it. You got money, you got booze. And cigarettes. We sold those the same way.”