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Helping veterans
October 8, 2019

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The first program of its kind nationwide aimed at helping veterans gain resource information launched at Cape Coral Hospital Tuesday.

Lee Health and the American Red Cross have teamed up to provide support and critical information to veterans at civilian hospitals.

Trained volunteers will make visits to hospitalized veterans at Lee Health facilities to provide them with information on the programs and resources available to them and to provide comfort to them.

"Lee County, we have over 50,000 veterans living here," said Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health. "It is such an honor to be able to partner with the American Red Cross to provide (veterans) the services that they not only need, but deserve."

A group of nearly a dozen volunteers visited with three veterans currently at Cape Coral Hospital on Tuesday; Air Force veteran Darryl Boulden, Air Force veteran Richard Giggey and Marine veteran William Miller.

When volunteers ventured to Boulden's room, he had no idea about the resources available to him after speaking with them for a few minutes.

"I haven't heard anything about it. This is just what I need," said Boulden, who thanked the volunteers profusely.

"It's good, it's a good thing," Giggey said. "I think they ought to do it for more veterans."

Giggey said he received no information after his service, and that it makes him feel good that other veterans in the area that will have access to it.

There are currently 60 veterans in the Lee Health system, and officials said they plan to have volunteers meet with all of the patients to provide resources and information.

The volunteers answer all questions any veterans may have and deliver materials detailing veteran benefits and programs in Southwest Florida.

"Lee Health is a perfect partner," said Joanne Nowlin, American Red Cross South Florida Region CEO. "They care about this community, they provide compassion and it's a unique, one-of-a-kind program which I am thrilled to be a part of -- that we can support our veterans who have done so much for our great country."

The program launched is the first in the nation for veteran visitation at a civilian hospital.

"The Red Cross has played this role with veterans for many, many years, but traditionally in either VA facilities or in military hospitals," said Heidi O'Sheehan, American Red Cross South Florida regional director of service to the Armed Forces and Army veteran. "It's a role we're familiar with but this is our first time doing it with a civilian hospital."

O'Sheehan told a story of when she visited a veteran in a VA facility during the holidays last year to spread some cheer, when it became more than just giving out a card and a smile.

She said the World War II veteran broke down and said, "I can't remember the last time somebody thanked me for my service."

That experience touched her, and said that's what the Red Cross is all about.

"We have an obligation to take care of our veterans," O'Sheehan said. "Not only while they're serving, but throughout their lives.

"(There's) a great VA clinic in Fort Myers, they serve a lot of veterans, but I think we're realizing now that more and more veterans are as well being treated in civilian hospitals. So if we want to be serving the veteran community, we have to look outside our normal area. That's really what spurred this program."

Kim Gaide, coordinator with Lee Memorial Health System Military Support Program, was vital in the launch of this program, along with countless others, and said she is so proud of have this opportunity to make a difference.

"We're so glad to be here," Gaide said. "Not everyone has that great support system and tons of friends and visitors, so know at least they'll be getting some visits from our very special volunteers and they'll be getting very important information as well so if they ever have a need -- either themselves or a fellow veteran down the road -- we're going to be providing them with information about resources right in this community that can help."

Kelsey Stewart, a Navy veteran in his own right and Cape Coral resident, has been volunteering at area hospitals for the last seven years and is now a part of this initiative at Cape Coral Hospital.

"I'm a current veteran myself, and I just thought it was a good thing to do," Stewart said. "Too many people feel left out, and it's a way we can pay them back a little bit for what they've done."

Stewart spend 30 years in the Navy on submarines and destroyers, and said he didn't received much information after his time in the service.

"There's so much out there, and I had no idea until we went through some of the Red Cross training," Stewart said. "I had no idea the Red Cross had a branch that specifically focuses on military folks. I'm excited to pass that along to those who need it.

"It makes me feel good to go in and talk to them, and I hope it makes them feel good that they know that someone cares and maybe we can just pass on some information that they didn't have."

Dr. Harry Alberti, chief physician executive at Cape Coral Hospital, and a veteran, said he's thrilled to get it all started in the Cape.

"We are excited that we can be the first here in our system, and I know we're going to do a great job," Alberti said. "We're going to work out all the kinks out and we're going to spread this throughout the county with the three other adult hospitals doing this.

"I want to thank the volunteers from the bottom of my heart, because if they don't participate, we don't have this program."

Alberti said that one day he'll be in a hospital bed looking for resources and information, and that he's touched the process will have started in a facility he plays such a vital role for.

"We are very honored to take care of the men and women who have served," Alberti said. "I know that this is going to be a great program for our community and our patients."

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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