Thursday, December 18, 2014
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At the Minneapolis VA hospital, vets help vets
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Rose Renneberg volunteers as an escort for patients at the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
Every day volunteers help patients navigate the miles of hallways and the maze of offices at the sprawling Minneapolis Veterans Hospital. The volunteers are called escorts, and they're from all age groups. Some see the donation of their time as a way of giving back for help given them. Others view it as a way to honor the contribution of friends or family serving in the military.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The volunteers gather as early as 6 a.m. in the Veterans Administration Hospital escort room. Seventy-eight-year-old Rose Renneberg is one of the first to arrive from her home in northeast Minneapolis.

"What would I do? I mean sit home and clean house. I did that all before when I had a family, now I'm more relaxed," she says.

Rose Renneberg's blazer sports a collection of pins honoring her 27 years as a volunteer at the Vet's Hospital.

There's not much she hasn't heard or seen from the patients she helps. A few are silent, but most are happy for the company.

Renneberg laughs recounting a new experience.

"Today I had runaway. I took him up to a clinic. He put his foot on the floor, and he was scooting away, and I had to run after him to bring him back," she says

Renneberg says the clinic staff had a good laugh watching her chase after a patient in a wheelchair.

The volunteers at the VA hospital range in age from 14 to 92 and come from all walks of life. Some are high school and college students. Others are retirees or people who find time to donate four hours a week.

Corinna Hanson is one of the youngest. The other volunteers call the Burnsville resident the 'queen of treats' because she always brings something to eat when she arrives for her Wednesday shift.

"We're a goofy bunch but we all get a long, and I love them dearly," she says.

Hanson became a veteran's hospital volunteer relatively recently. A childhood friend from her hometown was sent to help fight the war in Iraq. Hanson searched for something she could do to show her support and found the escort service.

She says the other volunteers, especially the older military veterans, helped her understand what her friend, who has since returned from Iraq, was going through. She says the volunteers are like family.

"I sent him an e-mail last Wednesday when I went home, and he said, 'Oh you're still doing that?' but now I do it for selfish reasons, you know?"

Many of the volunteers have known each other for years. As they wait for assignment there's exchange of news about grandkids and vacations and word of health crisis or friends passing on.

They bound from their chairs when the telephone coordinator in the back-room shouts, "order", for an assignment to escort a patient.

A handful of the volunteers are World War II veterans who have war stories that are alternately hilarious and horrific.

There's volunteer Arnold Moe's recollection of frozen feet. Within weeks of his 1943 graduation from high school in Montivideo, Minnesota Moe, then 18, was drafted into the Army. Near the end of the war in l945, Moe and thousands of other American troops were enduring one of Europe's harshest winters.

Planners assumed the war would be over by the previous summer. Troops had been issued leather boots fit only for fair weather. As the conflict dragged on Arnold Moe found himself dug into a wet foxhole in Germany's Moselle Valley. After more than two days in the freezing conditions Moe and others had frost bitten feet. They were evacuated to field hospitals where doctors, including some totally unfamiliar with frostbite in Moe's view tried to treat them.

"They had one podiatrist that was going to try hold them as close as he could to a hot stove, blisters and so forth," he says.

The doctor treating Moe had better success. He left the feet alone. To restore blood circulation he gave Moe and the others in the hospital ward strict orders to stay in bed and off their feet for six weeks. Moe laughs as he remembers how the order posed problems for men reluctant to use bed pans until military medical assistants intervened.

"The corpsman would take us piggyback to the bathrooms. Now those are real guys, those are real guys," he says. "I'm sort of repaying those corpsmen for that."

Volunteer Bill Fadden was on the other side of the world from Arnold Moe in World War II. Fadden was a Navy fireman on the hospital ship USS Comfort. He remembers the evening in April, l945 when the vessel was fully loaded with 800 patients and staff off the island of Okinawa in the south Pacific.

Fadden says a Japanese kamikaze pilot slammed into the ship's operating room. Water began rushing into the vessel. 26 people died.

"We got to be at a 45 degree list on the starboard side and all the doctors and nurses that night were killed in the operating room, and the only one who survived that night was the patient on the operating table, but he was badly burned," he says.

Fadden says the captain worried the ship would capsize. He sent the Navy fireman, then 18, down into the depths of the vessel with a pump.

"The balance of the night I had this steel harness on and a steel cable off my back, and I went into the deepest hole with a submersible pump between my feet, and I came up at sunrise, but we got the ship level finally," he says.

Volunteer Frank Ario was a member of a World War II tank crew in Europe. For years, he says, he was reluctant to relive his brushes with disaster including the time the tank's gunner made a loading mistake during a fierce battle that nearly killed Ario; or the time an enemy tank fired seven rounds at them and missed, which Ario calls an unheard of piece of luck in tank warfare.

"There are times when that stuff just rushes right up to the front of our head, I don't think it ever really goes away. But I was fortunate, I think I came out of that pretty psychologically sound. The gunner in my tank didn't fare as well, he just had a breakdown. I still stay in touch with him, but he couldn't handle it any longer," he says.

Ario says he came out of the war with questions he couldn't answer, questions intensified by the death of his twin brother, a soldier killed while fighting.

"I can't imagine even how many times I sat in that tank at night and said to myself, 'Why are we doing this to one another it doesn't make any sense?'".

Aris and the other volunteer escorts at the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital see patients with all kinds of conditions. These days, Rose Renneberg says, they're seeing more with injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"That is sad to see when they are early 20's and they are already handicapped, that gets to me really easy," she says.

Corinna Hanson says her volunteer work at the hospital gives her a perspective on life she doesn't find elsewhere.

"You come here and you see people you are able to help and from that you can take something away from it, but it also puts your own life and your own problems in perspective and you can walk away and say, 'It's not so bad today."

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