November 12, 2018
A Story from Our Veteran-to-Veteran Volunteer Program: Jim Keller
When Jim Keller returned from Vietnam, he wasn’t greeted at the airport by throngs of loving community members. In fact, he wasn’t thanked for his service for nearly 30 years.
“We were not treated very well at all. Our country was in disarray,” he says. “You almost didn’t tell people you were a Vietnam veteran. I was bitter about the war.”
Over the years, he says he “mellowed out,” but he never forgot how it felt to come home and feel unwelcome.
It’s this experience that Keller uses to shape what he does every day: give back to humankind.
Whether spending time with fellow veterans as a volunteer with EveryStep Hospice, or working on the expansive Welcome Home Soldier Monument in Albia, Keller’s service to country and community continues.
The Vietnam veteran and 70-year-old Albia resident had toyed with the idea of volunteering with EveryStep Hospice for years before finally making the leap. Now, he’s one of the Centerville team’s most counted-on veteran volunteers.
“It’s not about me, it’s about them. There’s just something about a veteran meeting a veteran,” Keller says.
Keller notes that whenever he meets a fellow veteran in hospice care, he does all he can to make the comrade feel appreciated and cared for. He even goes so far as inviting the patient’s family to contact him anytime.
“[Jim] knows how important it is for our veteran patients to receive recognition they so rightly deserve,” says Jane Kamerick, EveryStep volunteer coordinator. “Jim being the kind of guy he is, always feels honored to be a part of a patient’s veteran pinning.”
While Keller has spent time with countless veterans, there are a few stories that standout, including a Korean War veteran who made a sizeable donation to the Welcome Home Solider Monument.
“I told him after he wrote the check that I wanted to give him a hug,” Keller recalls. “He said ‘I don’t give hugs,’ but he did.”
When the man was in the hospital, Keller sat with his family. When the man woke up, he wanted to see Keller. The man’s son said Keller walking into the room was the last time the veteran smiled before passing.
While Keller spends much of his time sitting with and comforting fellow veterans at the end of their lives, his service and respect for his comrades doesn’t end there.
Keller dreamed up the Welcome Home Soldier Monument when he was thanked for his service for the very first time. Nearly 30 years after coming home from Vietnam, Keller and his wife were invited to visit with a fellow veteran. The man, who was a prisoner of war, shook Keller’s hand and said “welcome home soldier.”
The unfinished monument has been in the works for 14 years as Keller, architects, and community leaders have created plans, fundraised, and talked with veterans’ families about the best way to remember their service and sacrifice for their country.
The monument, which features several different installments, including battle field crosses, 100 American flags, 21 white crosses, and the flags of all 50 states, serves as a place where veterans, service men and women, and their families can visit to reflect on their service and their loved ones.
“The healing that goes on out there is unbelievable,” Keller says. “Every day, we’d hear a story of somebody or something that’s gone on in life.”
Keller’s desire to give back – both as a volunteer and the brains behind the Welcome Home Solider Monument - was instilled at a young age.
In 1959, at the age of 12, Keller’s father died in a vehicle crash, leaving the family with little.
“We were so poor the cockroaches moved out,” he says. “To this day, my mother is my hero.”
During that difficult time, Keller remembers there was always someone there when he truly needed help.
“I figure that’s why I need to give back to society,” he says.
And that’s just what he’s done, both with the Welcome Home Soldier Monument and as a volunteer for EveryStep Hospice.
To learn about the specialized services EveryStep offers to veterans, including its Veteran-to-Veteran volunteer program, please visit everystep.org or call the EveryStep Hospice team in Centerville, (641) 856-5502.