On the shelves in Charlie Upton’s room at the Oregon Veterans Home in Lebanon were cherished pictures. On the highest shelf was a photo of his dog. There were lots of shots with his family, daughters, Anna and Donna, and wife, Isabel. There were photos from annual week-long adventures with his brother Bill. And lots of pictures of Charlie in his role with the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Reminders of a good life.
The photos became harder to see from his adjustable bed when he was no longer able to get up on his own. Charlie had cancer. In May, doctors gave him three months to live.
To provide comfort and enhance his quality of life, Charlie received care from Samaritan Evergreen Hospice. The pictures and visits from family and friends helped him feel better, and hospice massage therapist Carol Biggs-Cory helped to ease his pain and discomfort. And he befriended hospice chaplain James Thurman, also an Army veteran.
Being on hospice allowed Charlie to live out the remainder of his life with dignity.
Cancer sharpened his focus on things he had left to do. He renewed his wedding vows with his wife of 50 years in a surprise ceremony. He visited his wife’s home country of Panama for the first time. He went on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with Anna to see the war memorials. Anna pushed him in the wheelchair when they went sightseeing.
“We had one heck of a good time,” Charlie said.
He wasn’t strong enough to make the brothers’ week trip this year, so Bill flew from Florida to see him. They reminisced about past trips to Chattanooga, Tennessee, the nation’s capital and Fort Benning, Georgia.
“We had planned on doing a lot more,” Bill said.
The brothers finished each other’s stories and set up punchlines to jokes. Charlie and Bill both served in Vietnam. Charlie was first assigned to infantry.
“I didn’t want to go,” he recalled.
Then he was transferred to a boat company that traveled the river channels on a landing craft utility carrying Marines and supplies.
It was not a safer place.
“Mother always said, ‘If you see something, duck,’” Charlie said.
“I remembered,” Bill said. “He didn’t."
Charlie was manning the machine gun on the boat when an explosion hit. The force was so powerful that it lifted the craft out of the water. Charlie lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital. He spent several months recovering.
He dedicated his life to helping other wounded veterans. He advocated for the installation of the Purple Heart signs that decorate Oregon’s highways.
“If there is a hero, it’s him,” Bill said.
“You can say that to all the girls,” Charlie replied.
In fact, Charlie’s heart belonged to Isabel. They met when he was stationed at Fort Lewis, in Washington. His sergeant asked if anyone could help his step-daughter learn English. Charlie raised his hand. He didn’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t speak English, but they understood love.
Like many couples facing military service during wartime, they decided to get married by a justice of the peace to solidify their commitment before he deployed overseas.
“We tied it up so we wouldn’t lose it,” Charlie recalled.
A helium balloon from their second wedding floated in the corner of his room at the Veterans Home.
To better meet the unique needs of dying veterans, Samaritan Evergreen Hospice partners with the national hospice and palliative care organization We Honor Veterans. About one in four dying Americans is a veteran.
Samaritan Health Services provides veterans and their families with resources, support and advocacy for optimal mental and physical health and social well-being through Samaritan Veteran’s Outreach.
Evergreen Hospice offers a veteran-to-veteran volunteer program and participates in veteran-specific community outreach events. Staff and volunteers receive training in how to listen to veterans, express appreciation and celebrate life’s accomplishments.
The special bond Charlie felt with chaplain Thurman reflects the focus and intent of Evergreen’s efforts to improve care for veterans.
Thurman sat close to Charlie’s bed.
“I talk to God,” Charlie said. “I keep asking, how come?”
He knows the answer. It’s just his time.
“I’ve got a good life,” Charlie said.
Charlie died peacefully on Aug. 24, 2017, surrounded by family.
“My dad wrote the ending to his life,” Donna said. “It came out almost exactly the way that he wanted it.”
Veterans Day celebrations will be taking place throughout the valley Saturday, Nov. 11.
A Toast to Our Troops event in Corvallis offers two fundraising opportunities for veteran services in our area. The annual Albany Veterans Day Parade in historic downtown Albany begins at 11 am on Saturday. Additional coinciding events are offered throughout the day in Albany.
If you’re interested in other veterans groups and activities, check our events calendar for meeting times and activities.