SIERRA VISTA — Every Tuesday, Carolyn Uhlig visits Patrick Porter, a resident at Prestige Assisted Living.
She’s been visiting the homebound veteran for three years and the two have become good friends through those visits. Confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak because of a stroke, Porter managers to communicate through hand signals, nods and smiles.
The U.S. Navy veteran is a Purple Heart recipient who spent one year as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Porter was a member of the Navy Beach Jumpers, a classified unit that served on the ground during WWII and again in the Vietnam War.
Today, when Uhlig chats with Porter about his time in the Navy, he points proudly to a Beach Jumper patch on his jacket. Uhlig serves as her friend’s voice by telling his story, while he nods in affirmation.
“Patrick has a fascinating background,” said Uhlig, who is a member of the James R. “Bob” Currieo VFW Post 9972 Auxiliary. “He served in the Navy for three years, one of those years as a prisoner of war while he was in Vietnam. Before his stroke, he was an active member of a motorcycle group that honors veterans and their service.”
Wanting to pay tribute to the large number of veterans residing at Prestige, VFW Auxiliary Post 9972 and the assisted-living facility are working together on a project dedicated to Prestige residents who have served our country. One wall in Prestige’s front reception area will be dedicated to the military and veterans.
“This project started in September when our VFW Auxiliary had a 108-foot-long by 54-foot-wide flag framed for Prestige so it could be mounted on the wall,” Uhlig said. “After a lot of searching, we decided to have Framing Solutions at the Arts and Crafts Center on Fort Huachuca frame the flag. They did a fabulous job.”
Prestige Executive Director Carole Bush agrees.
“The flag is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “We appreciate this so much. It means a lot to our veterans when they are recognized for their service and when these volunteers come here to visit them. A number of them feel forgotten and some don’t have family. There are others who have trouble getting benefits, and the VFW Auxiliary members help them find the resources they need to get the benefits they’ve earned.”
Bush is actively collecting photos of Prestige’s veterans while they were in the military to mount on the wall — which she is calling “Our Heroes” — with the newly framed flag as the centerpiece. Plans are to have the flag mounted the week before Memorial Day, with the photos displayed around it, Bush said.
Along with her role on the VFW Auxiliary, Uhlig also belongs to the Volunteer Caregiver Support Program, a national Veterans Administration pilot project of which Southern Arizona is one of the nine pilot locations.
“Our Southern Arizona Caregiver project has more volunteers and more veterans visited than most other sites,” said Voluntary Service Specialist Catherine Starr, the program coordinator who works out of the VA campus in Tucson. “This program is very popular and we are actively looking for more volunteers who would like to spend time with a housebound veteran in their neighborhood. It’s all about improving the quality of life for the veteran through social visits.”
There is training involved with the support program. Those interested in volunteering can get more information by going to www.tucson.va.gov, or by calling the Tucson voluntary service office toll free number at 800-470-8262, or 520-629-1822, or by emailing Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next step is to attend an information orientation session in Tucson. However, if there are enough interested applicants from this area, local trainings can be arranged, Starr said.
After the orientation, applicants are fingerprinted and go through a TB screening.
There is an eight-hour training specific to home visits which touches on issues faced by homebound veterans. The TB screening and fingerprinting is paid for by the program.
“In the Sierra Vista area; we currently have four active volunteers visiting four homebound, socially isolated veterans,” Starr said. “There are many more veterans out there that could benefit from this program.The four people that we have in Sierra Vista are life-savers.”
The support program involves a commitment of two to four hours a week.
Starr asks that volunteers commit to one year, as it helps to build a rapport between the veteran and visitor and provides consistency for the veteran.
“A person who’s isolated is often prone to depression,” she said. “Having a volunteer visitor on a regular basis makes a huge difference in their overall well-being. It means a lot to them.”
Starr said that Uhlig, who was recruited by another longtime volunteer, was visiting other veterans before she started visiting Porter.
“It’s a very rewarding form of volunteerism,” Starr said. “Our volunteers typically develop a special rapport with the veterans they visit and many of them stay with the support program for several years.”
Uhlig’s husband, Maynard “Mike” Uhlig, is the VFW Post 9972 adjutant, and she is a veteran herself.
“There are so many veterans in Sierra Vista, and our VFW Post is always looking for ways to help them and their families,” she said. “When we learned about this project at Prestige, it was something all of us were very excited about.”