Navy Sailors in the distinctive blue camouflage uniform of the day and dozens of civilian employees lined both sides of the long hallway, heads down, hands clasped.
Dozens of family members, including his wife, Cheryl, and his young great grandson Mason, walked with him. A broad-striped red, white and blue blanket lovingly hand-knit by strangers covered him. His local rabbi, Tzali Wilschanski, in a tall black hat and dark waistcoat, led the procession.
Hands were raised in solemn salutes as Holocaust survivor and Korean War Air Force Veteran Paul Argiewicz began his last journey on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013.
“It was amazing, it was incredible, there were so many people, his doctors and nurses, so many in uniform … it was such a big honor, it wasn’t anything I ever expected or heard about, it was just unreal,” Cheryl Argiewicz said, remembering the day her husband died at Lovell Federal Health Care Center and was given a “Final Salute.”
“It was the most beautiful thing,” she said. For more than a decade, Argiewicz, 88, of Paddock Lake, Wis., was a frequent visitor to Lovell FHCC (and the North Chicago Veterans Affairs Medical Center before 2010) for outpatient appointments and some short hospitalizations. Most knew about the book, “Number 176520,” which told his harrowing story of surviving the Holocaust as a teenager.
So on a crisp December morning when staff received word of Argiewicz’s death on the medical-surgical floor, many gathered for his Final Salute.
“Everybody knew him at the VA, in all the departments, everywhere we went they would say, ‘Hi, Paul.’ He was just friendly. He loved to talk to everyone,” Cheryl Argiewicz remembered.
Minutes after Argiewicz died, Hospice and Palliative Care Coordinator Anna Abraham followed a procedure she established last year and called the hospital’s quarterdeck – an information desk at the main entrance manned by Sailors – to round up Final Salute volunteers.
Abraham said the procedures are in effect for every Veteran patient, no matter what the hour or where in the hospital they die. “Our (hospice and palliative care) team wanted this – it’s the last thing we can do for our Veterans who have served our country, to honor them and pay respects,” she said.
Navy Hospitalman Gregory Spencer, from the optometry department, was one of the dozens of Sailors who readily volunteered to help Dec. 11. It was the second time he has participated in a Final Salute. “Any time you are able to honor someone who has sacrificed in this way, and support the family, it’s a very meaningful thing,” Spencer said as he waited.
Spencer said the best part about joining a Final Salute line is the appreciation shown by the Veterans’ family members. “It’s just a short time out of my day, and it means so much to the family … it’s a privilege,” he said. “I’ll do it as many times as I can.”
Father Bill Vander Heyden, division officer for pastoral services, explained how the Final Salute at Lovell FHCC has evolved from a “closed-door” policy to a celebration of life for staff and fellow patients as well as family members and friends of the deceased Veteran.
“Our team decided we had to do something about the way we escorted the Veteran’s body off the unit,” Vander Heyden said. “It used to be that the other patients on the floor would have to go back to their rooms, and we would close their doors so they wouldn’t see and get depressed.”
But, in fact, Vander Heyden said what actually happened before the change was fellow patients and staff members – who, in some cases, lived with and cared for the deceased Veteran every day in the facility’s Community Living Center – didn’t have the chance to grieve and say goodbye.
“So we decided to do just the opposite, to call everyone together and do this Final Salute,” Vander Heyden continued. “This gives them an honorable, dignified way to leave, and it shows the other Veterans that when their time comes, the same ceremony will take place. Their fellow Veterans will have a chance to pay final respects.”
An added meaningful touch to the Final Salute is the patriotic blanket that is draped over the morgue cart. Vander Heyden recounted how Nurse Manager Joyce Wadlington asked if something could be done about the stark, off-white aluminum cart. The team decided against using an American flag because they didn’t want to take away from potency of the family receiving a flag at the Veteran’s funeral, he said.
Vander Heyden knew about a local craft group in McHenry Township named the Crafty “Happy” Hookers, who knit lap blankets for Veterans.The group, primarily Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Auxiliary members, was happy to oblige. The facility now has several handmade blankets that are reused as needed in various parts of the hospital.
The Final Salute begins with the chaplain, or in Argiewicz’s case his rabbi, reciting a prayer in the hall within earshot of those lined up, followed by the playing of “Taps” on a portable CD player as the body is wheeled down the hall. Those in uniform salute as the cart passes.
For Cheryl Argiewicz, the sight of her husband’s nurses and doctors, including his long-time primary care clinician Julia Kizhner, standing silently as they waited to start his Final Salute was overwhelming. “She was just fantastic, so many people were fantastic because they had a personal interest in Paul, so when I saw them there, it was just unbelievable.”
Although Argiewicz was not in hospice care when he died, he had made the decision with the help of Dr. Kavita Sharma, attending physician for hospice and palliative care – whom Cheryl Argiewicz calls an “angel” – to “stop fighting.” He was hospitalized the last time at Lovell FHCC for about six months, with a multitude of problems relating to his heart and kidneys.
”It got to the point when he said, ‘please don’t hurt me anymore,’ so we stopped all the stuff that was painful and made him comfortable,” Cheryl Argiewicz said.
Argiewicz’s Jewish faith dictated his body would not be embalmed and could not be buried on Friday, the Sabbath. Therefore, his body was transported from Lovell FHCC directly to the funeral home, and he had a full military funeral with a gun salute the next day. In the blur of the hours and days of Shiva, the Jewish week-long period of mourning, Cheryl Argiewicz was awed by the outpouring of love and support for her husband.
“The man was just bigger than life,” Cheryl Argiewicz said. “I can’t even tell you how many cards, cakes, God knows what else, came to the home … there was a crowd gathered every night. It was amazing.”
Many people knew him from the book “Number 176520,” about his ordeal in German camps during World War II. It was a story he frequently recounted to schoolchildren and civic groups, and at the annual March of Remembrance in Washington D.C., over the years. The book, by Deanne Joseph, was named for his concentration camp number tattooed on his arm.
Argiewicz, born in Bielsko, Poland, was arrested at age 10 by the Waffen-SS (military force of Nazi Germany) for stealing bread for his family members, who were starving in the Jewish ghetto. More than once during his imprisonment he lied about his age and work skills in order to survive. He was liberated from Buchenwald at the age of 15. His parents and an older sister did not survive the Holocaust.
After the war, he immigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Air Force in 1952. He served as a crew chief in the Korean War, during which he was shot down. Seriously injured, he was captured and held prisoner for nearly a year.
“He bailed out the plane, lost part of his clavicle and his hearing,” Cheryl Argiewicz said. “He used to tell people that being a POW was nothing compared to the Holocaust.”
After he was discharged from the Air Force, Argiewicz worked as a steamfitter in Chicago and started his own business, Argo Heating and Cooling. He was widowed from his first wife and married Cheryl Erdman in 1996. In addition to public speaking, Cheryl Argiewicz said he counseled many fellow Veterans over the years, including some who were considering suicide.
“He put a real value on life … he touched thousands of lives over the years,” Cheryl Argiewicz said.