Saying Good-Bye To An Old Soldier

Tomorrow at noon, the 10th of July, 2020, on a somber hillside south of Mandan, North Dakota, a lone bugler will blow Taps, and a squad of American Veterans will fire a 21-gun salute to 1st Sergeant Hubert Garland Crook, United States Army (retired) as his cremated ashes are laid under a white marble headstone, joining thousands of his fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen, in the last resting place of North Dakota’s war heroes, the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery.

Sgt. Crook (always Garland to his family and friends), my wife’s father, will be buried seventy-six years, one month, four days and a few hours after his boots hit the beach in Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He died, fittingly, on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020, of old age and loneliness, in a Mandan nursing home, where his family was unable to spend his last days and hours with him because of the coronavirus pandemic.

 One of the last survivors of the D-Day invasion, Garland’s next birthday in August would have been his ninety-sixth. He was never afraid to admit he was “just a scared 19-year-old kid” that June morning long ago, participating in one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. In less than three months, by late August, all of Northern France had been liberated by American forces, and then-Private Crook was recovering from wounds received in the Battle of the Hedgerows with Nazi forces, earning him the first of his two Purple Hearts.

Garland’s military career spanned three wars—WW II, Korea, (where he earned his second Purple Heart), and Vietnam. For his service, following military tradition, his family will be presented with an American flag flown over the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, and a second flag, obtained by his son, Senior Chief Petty Officer Thomas Crook, United States Navy (retired), which flew over the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer France, on June 25, 2020.

Normandy flag one

As his ashes are buried, his gravesite will be sprinkled with sand from Normandy Beach, presented to him by his friend, Lt. Col. Bob Martinson, United States Army Reserve (retired), after a trip to Normandy several years ago.

Here’s a story I wrote which appeared in the July issue of Dakota Country magazine, which is on the newsstands now.

Death in the Time of the Coronavirus

These are unusual and terribly unnerving times. None of us has ever experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. What we thought might be the worst April Fool’s Day joke ever turned out to be deadly serious. I hope by the time you read this, about Independence Day, we can celebrate just that once again: independence. It’s been a long haul.

Normally in the last few months we’d have experienced many days in the boat with friends, shared stories at fish cleaning stations or around campfires, and traveled to destinations far and near with kids, grandkids and cousins. For most of us, none of that has been possible yet this year.

It’s also been a time of loneliness, a loneliness that doesn’t end, a loneliness that we’ve not experienced before. That’s been the case at my house, and probably at yours.

My father-in-law, Garland Crook, a veteran of three wars, recipient of two Purple Hearts for being wounded (but not killed) in action, and who probably caught more fish in his 95 years than any of us could ever imagine, died, fittingly, on Memorial Day 2020, in his room at a Mandan nursing home, surrounded by . . . no one.

I’m going to use my space in this month’s magazine to talk, in a very personal way, about the impact of the pandemic on old people and their families. Garland’s death certificate might say he died of old age, but it should also say “Loneliness.”

Garland lived a long, busy life, full of much joy, except for the last three months, when the coronavirus led to a lockdown at his nursing home, where his wife and daughters had been visiting him daily. His only contact with his family during the last three months of his life was waving at his wife and daughters and grandkids through his bedroom window, and on video calls with them on an I-pad his oldest grandson bought for him, much to his amazement and amusement.

Garland was a war hero. On D-Day he was on Normandy Beach, helping to free Europe from the Nazis. His more-than-20 years of Army service spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Then he took his Army retirement and went fishing in North Dakota. My best memories of him were in a fishing boat on the Missouri River, a grin on his face running almost bank to bank as he pulled walleyes from the water. For years, his daughter, my wife, Lillian, bought his fishing license online and gave it to him for Father’s Day.

He spent the last year and a half in a nursing home, his body just acting like it was supposed to act when you’re in your 90s. He didn’t like it much. He wanted it to end, but he bore it with dignity. In one of our last conversations last winter, he said to me “Jim, I just want to get down to that hill south of Mandan,” referring to his final resting place, the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery.

He’s getting his wish now. He’ll be going there soon, when family can finally gather again for a burial service.

His passing was no surprise. His dementia had worsened substantially since Christmas, and he became unresponsive a week or so before he died, just lying in his bed, not taking any nourishment or liquid.

His daughters installed what we call a “trail camera” on his dresser connected to his own WiFi that Lillian had CenturyLink install, so they could at least monitor him after the home locked its doors to outsiders, even family, something the family had been pondering since he was admitted. He was a true US Army man, a gadget guy all his life, and I know he marveled at what we could do with technology.

Although they could no longer visit him, his family was well aware of his decline, observing that he wasn’t getting out of bed anymore and the video calls had stopped. He was seldom even awake. As summer approached, we all knew the end was near.

His family pleaded with the nursing home administrators for weeks for permission to go in and be with him, to no avail. There are harsh rules during this time, and this nursing home followed them to the letter, no exceptions. Plans that were made almost a year ago to ensure that he would receive comfort care and hospice care as he neared the very end of his life were clearly not falling into place.

His daughters did get unit staff to open his bedroom window a few inches on the Saturday afternoon before he died, and they sat outside that window for two days, telling him they loved him, reading him stories, and singing his favorite hymns for him.

Finally, in desperation, on Sunday afternoon, they contacted the hospice team themselves, and arranged for him to be released into hospice care at his daughter’s home. Arrangements were made, but took more time because of the long Memorial Day weekend. A hospital bed was ordered to be delivered to the house. The ambulance was to deliver him there at noon Monday, so he could pass peacefully, with his family at his side.

He didn’t make it. At 9:25, as the staff was preparing to dress him for the trip, he succumbed. I think he just decided that was too much trouble, with as little time as he had left.

His nurse said his passing was peaceful. The staff paid their respects to him. He was a huge favorite there, a crusty old sergeant with a wall full of military plaques and a heart of gold. He was born and raised in Mississippi, and carried a hint of that in his voice all his life, even though he was a resident of the South for a only a fraction of his long life, because his youth was interrupted by war, and then he married a North Dakota farm girl who had traveled to the west coast. After their 20-year adventure around the world, they settled on her farm in southwest North Dakota and he made his adopted state his home the rest of his life, with a brief interlude living in Mississippi in his mother’s last years of life.

Late in life, with a new fishing boat and an old pickup camper, fishing became even more of a passion as he passed through his 80s, camping beside Lake Sakakawea with a couple of his old buddies. One of the great moments in his life was catching a giant walleye that got him into the Whopper Club. He had it mounted and it hung on the wall of his nursing home room until we took it down the day he died. It will eventually hang on the wall of one of his grandchildren.

Garland came from a large family, the oldest of nine children of poor southern folks, most of them born to his parents Jasper Earl and Lena Belle Crook during the Depression years. About half survive him, along with a score of grandchildren, great grandchildren, and a fifth generation great, great grandson, born just two weeks before he died, who he never got to hold in those gnarled old hands. The family remains in the south—he was the only one who traveled extensively and spent any time living north of the Mason-Dixon line—and those few who can travel here will come for a brief service and remember their big brother fondly and with pride.

As will all of us here in his adopted state. As Garland would say, we finally “got shed of him.” But he left an indelible mark here, especially on the state’s veterans’ organizations, serving as one of his state’s commanders.

He was a lifelong man of the outdoors. He finally sold the boat and his last camper, a step-van, when he was 88 and moved into an assisted living apartment.

But he kept fishing with my partner Jeff and me, and his son-in-law Jason, on the Missouri River. He caught his last walleye the summer he turned 94. That grin still on his face.

Garland's walleye
Garland loved catching walleyes. Can you tell?

Garland didn’t die of the virus, but his lonely passing, all alone in an institutional setting, certainly made him a victim of it. His nurse told us, though, that after the staff payed their respects Memorial Day morning, the television in the gathering area was tuned to CNN and the network was televising a Memorial Day service, and “Taps” sounded as they departed the room.

His story, the story of “death during the coronavirus,” is becoming a familiar one. Old people dying of loneliness in nursing homes or hospitals with families locked outside the walls. I’m sure there are hundreds of stories like Garland’s in the Dakotas—many of them in families reading this magazine—and tens of thousands nationwide.

Later, there will be services, when families and friends can gather again, and one day, in Garland’s case, at least, seven of his fellow veterans will fire their 21 rounds as his ashes are laid under a white marble marker alongside thousands of fellow North Dakotans “on that hill south of Mandan,” just as he requested.

We could never have predicted that those war heroes’ lives would end in such a lonely, ignominious manner. They deserved better, that “Greatest Generation.” They not only fought our wars, and defended our freedom, but they taught us to hunt, and fish, and build a campfire, and to love the outdoors.

They died alone, but not in vain. We will carry on for them.

 

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