Terminally ill veterans get chance for final wish

After honeymooning in California's Yosemite National Park in 1950, Navy veteran Ray West and his wife, Jean, returned there each of the next 48 years to celebrate their anniversary.

Then his health began to fail, and his family had to break the anniversary tradition. When the 89-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia and heart disease in late 2014, his only wish was one more trip with his family to the park that had become "our home away from home."

He was granted that wish in May, thanks to help from the Dream Foundation's new veterans program, launched just before West's diagnosis. The group picked up lodging costs for the journey and helped ease travel issues related to his illnesses.

"It wouldn't have been possible for us to do that without them," an emotional West said at a foundation event in Washington, D.C., last week. "My dream really was fulfilled."

The foundation, created 20 years ago, began discussing a veterans-specific program in recent years as staff and volunteers saw an increasing number of aging former service members reaching out to their organization for help.

Like other long-standing programs the group runs, the goal is to give "inspiration, comfort and closure" to adults facing terminal illnesses, said Kisa Heyer, the foundation's executive director.

But the new program also includes input from an advisory committee of veterans and caregivers on ways to not only fulfill veterans' requests but to honor their service and sacrifice.

Though the program formally launched Sept. 17, Heyer said the group already has filled numerous such requests, typically inviting other veterans to help greet the recipients and assist them on their trips.

West's son, David, said that kindness and respect have been as important to his father as the trip itself. The elder West served as a seaman third class from 1944 to 1946, mostly dealing with ammunition logistics in the Utah and Nevada deserts, service he was proud of but often got overlooked.

"Pop was never really recognized for his service," David West said. "He was so excited about the trip, and so excited to come (to Washington) to talk about the program. That has meant so much to us. I know this has helped keep him alive.

"It's not just the veterans. It's the families that really benefit from this."

The program is open to any U.S. military veterans 18 years or older with a life expectancy of 12 months or less who need financial support to "manifest his or her dream." Heyer said requests include such things as scooters to help individuals remain mobile, bedside reunions with loved ones and final vacations like the one West received.

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