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Death used to bother Don Ottomeyer. As a young officer in the U.S. Army during the 1970s, he saw too much of it. Now, more than 30 years after he left the military, he seeks out the dying.
For the past 25 years, Ottomeyer has volunteered in hospice centers in Michigan (where he has lived in Ann Arbor since 2007), North Carolina and Idaho. Every week he encounters the sick and the dying, all of them military veterans.
“I don’t think any veteran should die alone,” he said.
By his count, he has stood watch as more than 100 vets took their final steps in life. Each year, his load increases.
“I used to see six or seven a year,” he said. “So far this year I’ve had 10.”
Nationwide, veterans of World War II are dying at a high rate — over 600 per day, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Ottomeyer said he’s now starting to see Vietnam-era vets in hospice.
Ottomeyer fears many are dying alone. He hopes younger veterans will volunteer to support the older generation.
"The vets who are at end of life have had such a unique journey. They have unique needs that can only be understood by another veteran,” said Gloria Danna Brooks, president and CEO of Arbor Hospice in Ann Arbor, where Ottomeyer volunteers.
Brooks said connecting dying veterans with others who have had similar experiences is vital to bringing peace and closure.
"There’s a lot of personal loss that these guys have experienced,'' she said. "Having a fellow veteran to talk with is helpful for them."
Ottomeyer is able to make that connection, she said.
Most important, she added, "he helps them be at peace in their final days.”
The right man for the job
Life has prepared Ottomeyer for his work with the dying.
His mother and aunt were the only members of their 16-person family to survive the Auschwitz death camp. His father served in World War II, influencing Ottomeyer to join the service as an officer in 1975.
In 1978, his Army Ranger unit was given orders to help with the rescue of members of the cultlike Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known as Jonestown, in Guyana. The community was made up mostly of people from San Francisco.
His mission went from rescue to recovery when more than 900 people, many of them children, died in a mass murder-suicide on Nov. 18 of that year, following the commands of their Peoples Temple leader, Jim Jones, to drink a punch laced with cyanide. The Jonestown Massacre, as it was called, was the largest loss of American life — outside of war and natural disaster — until the events of 9/11.
“I was a gung-ho airborne ranger,” said Ottomeyer. “I was a good soldier. I don’t think I understood death until Jonestown. Anytime you see a thousand dead Americans, it’s hard not to be influenced.”
He said bearing witness to so many lives lost affected him deeply. And then a truck accident in 1979 killed 21 soldiers under his command.
“They were driving back after a weapons exercise in Panama,” he said. “It was raining, and the driver slammed on the brakes and skidded. They went off the bridge.”
Ottomeyer said the brazen soldier he used to be changed that day.
“After something like that,” he said, “you start really reflecting on the meaning of life.”
Because of his experience in Guyana and Panama, Ottomeyer, then a captain, completed his military commitment in Washington, D.C., serving as the chief of military contingency operations at the White House under President Jimmy Carter.
After leaving the service in 1982, he worked in health care sales and found he was drawn to veterans facing the end of life.
“At Jonestown and Panama, the ones who died were so young,” he said. “Hospice was the opposite. These people have lived rich, full lives. I feel comfortable and at peace with that.”
Over the years, he has heard some amazing stories.
“One fellow was standing in line at the naval recruiting station and a recruiter came out and asks if any of them has ever flown … He raised his hand and said that he flew a crop duster and the recruiter said, ‘Now you’re a fighter pilot.’
“He fought in the Battle of Midway off of a carrier. He said there were 45 planes that left on his wing and only two of them came back.”
Another World War II veteran told Ottomeyer the story of how his commanding general died in his arms in the Philippines.
“He just had tears running down his face as he’s telling the story,” Ottomeyer said. “This happened 60, 70 years ago.”
A Korean War veteran recalled the freezing temperatures he experienced on the battlefield.
“He remembered the bitter cold and how they had to urinate on their rifle to get it to work,” Ottomeyer said.
Ned, a Marine, regaled Ottomeyer with the story of how he had to persuade his first sergeant and company commander to allow him to fight after they learned he was just 16 years old.
“They were going out to Guadalcanal,” Ottomeyer said. “He started crying to the first sergeant, ‘Please let me go.’”
Ottomeyer said Ned’s first sergeant and commander “lost” his paperwork so the young private could fight.
“I think he actually got the Silver Star,” he said. “It was a different time. People felt like it was their duty. Just because you were 16 doesn’t mean you didn’t have a duty.”
A common thread
One common experience that Ottomeyer sees: survivor’s guilt.
“Close to half the men that I see and visit with that have seen combat feel very troubled that they survived and their friends did not,” he said. “I think part of that is reflecting on their life and what a great life they had.”
Ottomeyer suspected that Robert Darnell, a World War II veteran of the Pacific theater, struggled with survivor’s guilt in his final months.
“Don told us he thought my dad had these feelings,” said Ken Darnell, Robert's son. “As a family, we suspected that Dad kept a deep, dark secret, but we never heard the details.
“When Don came in, Dad sang like a bird.”
Ken Darnell said Ottomeyer didn’t disclose the details of the conversations he shared with Robert, but he believes Ottomeyer helped his father find peace in his final days.
“They shared a true camaraderie,” he said. “When you face intense life-and-death situations and life-altering experiences, you have an immediate bond with someone who has gone through the uncertainty and calamities of war.”
Ken Darnell said he was grateful to Ottomeyer and his commitment to supporting his father.
“In his dying days, Don showed up to my dad’s room, ready to spend the night with him,” he said.
Ottomeyer attended the memorial service for Robert Darnell.
“These people are a treasure, and we let them slip away quietly. It breaks my heart,” Ottomeyer said. “I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the American soldier. They’re a very different kind of breed. They are the American spirit.”