They are separated by many years and multiple wars, but when 26-year-old Michael Contee presented 96-year-old Imel Willis with a pin and a plaque to commemorate his years of service, the young Marine reservist and the World War II vet were a united front. One nation under the call of duty.
“Whether it is World War II or Korea or Vietnam, there is this automatic sense of understanding,” Contee said. “When they see the uniform, their eyes perk up. If they can speak, they speak. But if they don’t speak, it doesn’t matter. It’s all been said.”
As a volunteer with LightBridge Hospice and Palliative Care, 2nd Lt. Michael Contee performs honor ceremonies for veterans who are on the last march of their lives. In his full dress uniform, Contee kneels at the patients’ feet for a few words of thanks, followed by a sharp salute.
In hospitals, convalescent homes and bedsides all over San Diego, Contee presents military men and women with tokens of a country’s appreciation. In return, he gets a world of thanks.
“I don’t know that my father has ever been singled out by the military, and I am so honored that they have done this,” Willis’ son, Floyd, said after last week’s ceremony, which took place in the family’s Chula Vista living room. “Michael was so respectful, and he was very adept at intuiting what my father needed. He was saying just enough that Daddy could grasp.”
A native of Oahu, Hawaii, Contee was on track to be deployed to Afghanistan last summer. But his deployment was delayed due to the drawdown, so he decided to find another way to serve. Remembering how his grandmother benefited from hospice care, he started researching local hospice organizations and ended up contacting LightBridge. Within a few days, LightBridge drafted him for veterans’ duty. Which, as it turned out, was more of a privilege.
“I love old people. I just love ’em,” said the gregarious Contee, who majored in history at Quincy University in Illinois and is currently a manager at Chuze Fitness in Mission Valley. “They’re wise, and they tell you what they want to tell you, and they don’t care if you accept it or not. It’s an amazing feeling when you make that connection. I have to smile. You can’t not smile.”
Before they embark on hospice work, LightBridge volunteers are trained in the delicate art of aid and comfort. They learn how to deal with dying patients and grieving families and how to keep the process from taking its toll on their own emotional health. In Contee’s case, he also learned that helping patients through these final chapters doesn’t have to be a sad story.
“Most of the time, it’s not tragic. One guy got seasick (during his service), and that’s all he wanted to talk about. Another guy’s plane crashed in the Pacific during World War II, and he was rescued by his own brother. That was an amazing story.
“When someone passes, it’s never easy. It’s how you deal with it,” he continued. “You think your life is crazy, and then you hear about this man being shot down and rescued by the person he loved the most. When you hear that, you realize that anything is possible.”
Like many LightBridge honorees, Imel Willis is frail and battling dementia. But when Contee appeared, the fog seemed to clear.
Maybe it was the uniform, which inspired Willis to open his eyes and comment on Contee’s sharp appearance. (“The first thing he said to me was, ‘You look good,’ ” Contee said with a grin.) Maybe it was the ceremony, a short, heartfelt affair that ended with a salute and a blessing, followed by cake and coffee in the dining room.
And maybe it was the man in the uniform, who always makes sure his shoes are shined, his face is clean-shaven (bye-bye, goatee) and his heart is in the perfect place.
“He is always willing to make the sacrifice,” said Tauna Austin, LightBridge’s volunteer coordinator. “I’ll call Michael and say, ‘We’ve got this guy who is dying, can you do this right away?’ and he will do it. He’s got a great sense of humor and a great smile. Not everyone is generous with their smile.”
Contee isn’t sure what his military future holds. Maybe he will be deployed, and maybe he won’t. But his future with the men and women who served before is not up for debate.
“You reach that age when the light clicks and you realize that life is about something more than you. I’ll keep doing this as long as they’ll have me.”