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Caring for the Greatest Generation: Making Time for Your Patient's Unique History


Your patient's history is a part of assessment, but sometimes their personal history is just as important as their medication list. As Veteran's Day approaches on November 11th, it is the perfect time to ask your patients about their service. Here are some of the ins and outs of finding the time to appreciate a former soldier.

Specializes in telemetry, med-surg, post op, ICU. Has 4 years experience.

Caring for the Greatest Generation: Making Time for Your Patient's Unique History

I have a passion for history and a passion for patients. When the two come together, I am held transfixed, unable to tear myself away. Veteran's Day is an important holiday to honor those men and women who have served to protect our country. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nurses can expect to see more patients who have war stories of what they went through. However, most of the patients we see are those from the Greatest Generation, those who lived and suffered through World War II.

As a nurse, it can be difficult to find time to talk at length about a patient's past. Sometimes, though, these patients need to get their story out. They need to have their pasts heard by someone who is caring and compassionate. Veteran's Day is a great day to take the time to ask about service, but honestly, you can ask on any day. Take the time, even if its just five minutes, to listen to a war story. Say thank you honestly, and give them your attention. Many veterans feel like others don't care, but as a nurse, this is a great opportunity to bond with your patient.

Asking About Service History

I walked into a patient's room one night and saw a book on the table. I recognized it because I had read it myself. It was Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, the book that the popular HBO miniseries was based on. Thinking I found another military historian, I asked him if he liked the book, what he thought about it. He replied, "I lived it. I was in the 101st Airborne Division in World War II." What followed was a fascinating account about how he and his buddies parachuted into Normandy and led the spearhead that eventually ended up in Germany itself. I would have stayed longer, but unfortunately, med pass was calling.

I remember this conversation because it was extraordinary. What was merely a history lesson to me was this man's life. If you find a patient who mentions their military service, it doesn't hurt to ask about it. Some are delighted to relate their stories. You may have pressing matters that you need to take care of, but ask your questions while providing care. It doesn't take too much time to listen, and your patient may feel grateful that you cared enough to ask. Instead of merely performing the actions of your job, take the time to make the human connection and care for more than just their body.

Honoring Our Veterans

I usually worked night shift, and the weather outside one night was blustery and cold. I entered a patient's room and noticed him sitting by the window, a frown on his face. Concerned that he was in pain, I asked him what was wrong. He pointed to the flag outside his window. "That flag shouldn't be flying in this weather, and it isn't lit properly. I suffered for the flag, and I hate to see it disrespected." I was taken aback, never having heard these rules before. I assured him I would do everything I could to take care of it. I sent a message to the comments department of my hospital, and a new light was installed shortly thereafter.

Veterans want to be honored, and this man was rightfully upset that the flag was not being cared for properly. Of course, there wasn't much I could do as a simple floor nurse, but I did express my sympathy and empathy. He cared for that flag, and it hurt him to see it in the rain. No matter what your political persuasions, service men and women have given a great sacrifice for their country. Rather than focusing on what those wars meant, focus instead on what these people gave. Even if you couldn't care less about the flag or patriotic overtures, your patient may, and it is all about them. Do what you can to listen, fix what you can, and keep your opinions close to the vest.

Dealing with Reluctant Soldiers

I was working in a nursing home as an activities aid when I met a nice older woman who had suffered a broken hip. Her husband was always with her, helping her when he could. I noticed he had a long scar that extended from just under his right eye, crossed his mouth, and ended at his left jaw. I'm not sure what got us talking about history, but he admitted he was in World War II. However, he didn't want to talk about it. You could see in his eyes that something haunted him about his time in the war. In the end, he gave me a typed up copy of a short biography his son convinced him to write. He had killed. He had been left for dead when he got his wound. When I saw him again after reading it, he said, "I hope you don't think any less of me."

Some patients will not want to talk about their service, and that's quite alright. War is, indeed, hell, and many veterans don't want to relive it. If you notice a tattoo or a scar that may indicate service, you can ask casually, but don't be surprised if the patient clams up. Some memories have never even been expressed to their families, and they aren't likely to express them to you. Instead, thank them for their service, offer to lend an ear if they ever feel like talking, and allow the conversation to drift to other topics. As with all sensitive issues, nurses need to be discreet and careful when probing for information, especially a history that likely doesn't impact their medical history.

That said, Veteran's Day should not be ignored. It is November 11th, which happens to be the date the Germans surrendered in World War I. Take the time out from your schedule to talk to a veteran. At the very least, thank them for their service. They sacrificed in service, as nurses do to an extent, and the urge to give to others can give you a common ground for a deeper connection with your patient.

Freelance Medical Writer

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8 Comment(s)

traumaRUs, MSN, APRN, CNS

Specializes in Nephrology, Cardiology, ER, ICU. Has 29 years experience.

Great article Lynda. I worked in a VA Hospital for several years in Indianapolis and have worked at several military hospitals too. You are so right about the Greatest Generation and there are so few left.


Lynda Lampert, RN

Specializes in telemetry, med-surg, post op, ICU. Has 4 years experience.

Thanks, traumaRUs! I really enjoyed talking to these patients, and it was hard to make time for their stories. Now, though, I have a great experience to look back on and appreciate. I feel like I unearthed something special by talking to these veterans. I always wanted to work in a VA for that reason, but working in the hospital, I saw a lot of VA patients coming through my floor.

Julie Reyes, DNP, RN

Specializes in pediatrics, occupational health. Has 6 years experience.

I love this! My dad served in WWII, lied about his age so he could join the navy after D-day happened. I have heard some horrible stories of his recollections of the war, and I am so proud of him. He just turned 90. I love the way nurses at the VA treat him - like he is something special. And he is. Just like the others who served our country. I am so grateful to the nurses who care for our soldiers, you are all a very special blessing!!!

Lynda Lampert, RN

Specializes in telemetry, med-surg, post op, ICU. Has 4 years experience.

My grandfather also served in WWII, and I believe he lied about his age, as well. It was such a different time, wasn't it? I read somewhere that the state of our military aged adults would not have the physical fitness if called to serve in the same way they were.

I also read D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, and I recommend that book, as well. If you really want to know the stories of how people fought for our country, I recommend any book by him. D-Day is harrowing, though, and not for the faint of heart.

I love talking to my patients about their lives. You learn so much! I especially like veterans, though, because I love history. :)

fawnmarie, ASN

Specializes in Psychiatric Nursing. Has 19 years experience.

Like the author, I have a passion for history, and I enjoy hearing stories from my elderly patients. My current fascination actually involves stories from the Vietnam war. As a mental health nurse, I have had the honor of caring for many Vietnam vets; also my own father-in-law served 11 months in Vietnam in 1967-68. A fellow AN member, RNIBCLC, wrote an article recently about "Home Before Morning," the autobiography of an RN in Vietnam, and I'm reading it currently. I always make it a point to thank veterans for their service! I enjoyed this article!


Has 21 years experience.

Fantastic article, Lynda. Thank you so much for the reminder. I have also worked at both military and VA hospitals. I love talking to Veterans, especially the dwindling population of WWII vets. I would love to eventually get back to a military or VA hospital.

I hope that the hospital I work at is planning something for Veteran's Day. I am reminded of when I worked for Vitas Hospice and one of our social workers (a Veteran himself) made a point to recognize each patient who was a Veteran w/ a special certificate and a pin. He drove to each house to hand deliver them. The patients were so appreciative! He also recognized all staff members who were Veterans.

Maybe I'll step up and do something on our floor if nothing is planned.

If you have a loved one or a patient who is a Veteran, encourage them to participate in the Oral History Project. There are so few WWII vets left and when they pass on, their stories pass on with them. Anyone can take the history. Here is a link to the project. It is run by the Library of Congress.


My grandfathers were both WWII vets, one of whom died in the past few years and one who passed on decades ago. Both of my uncles were in Vietnam. The grandfather who lived until recently was just starting to talk about his experiences in WWII, grisly and gruesome as they were. Neither of my uncles, one of whom is now deceased, ever spoke of their experiences.

Thank you for encouraging understanding and patience as nurses encounter military veterans of all ages and all walks of life. As an Army nurse and soon-to-be-veteran myself, I appreciate your advocacy on behalf of a group that is often lost between the civilian media coverage and the official military statements on a given issue, despite the fact that they are often the reason the event occurred in the first place.

Nice article, Lynda! I am a big WWII geek, especially DDay, Midway, and Pearl Harbor. One of my parents' friends is a DDay vet and I finally got to hear his story last summer when my mom and I bumped into him and his wife at the hairdresser. I was in Normandy last summer and sent him a couple of postcards, a magnet, and a commemorative coin, and he was just so pleased by those small gestures. Very modest man and very humble about his service.

I volunteer at a hospice and my favorite patient so far was a WWII vet. We both loved the same NFL team and the same airshow, and I spent hours talking with him. What a great guy. Whenever I see that a patient/resident is a veteran I ask about their service; some will talk about it, some will not.

As an aside...while in Normandy I met a nice family from Belgium. The father said, "Well, if it weren't for you Americans, we wouldn't be free today. So thank you." And the people of Normandy, for the most part, love Americans. Nice to know that the incredible sacrifices our military members made have not been forgotten there.