Room 143 sits approximately 60 steps from the front doors of the Denver Veterans Affairs Community Living Center. You know because you can count Julian Scadden’s every step—change jingling in one pocket, a set of keys jangling in the other—as the 67-year-old passes through two sets of double doors, past the nurses station, down the hallway to the third door on the right. He knocks before he enters. He always knocks, even if the men lying in the beds can’t answer.
The maple trees outside Room 143 have just begun to blossom, but the lieutenant, separated from them by just a few feet and less than an inch of glass, can’t see the tiny buds and leaves unfurling. His eyes are open but clouded. “I haven’t left you, partner,” Julian says, approaching the bed. He carries a cool washcloth and gently pats the lieutenant’s forehead. “I’m right here.”
There’s a peculiar odor in the room, the scent of strong coffee (Julian’s: black, no sugar) and antiseptics blending with the sickly sweet smell of sweat and soiled linens. Julian doesn’t notice. That’s in part because of his own bouquet; he’s been here since yesterday. He came—as he always does—when the nurses called and said the lieutenant was close. No matter that it was evening. No matter that Julian had worked all day at the VA hospital next door, cleaning floors and toilets and emptying rooms of the ugliness that comes with illness. When the call came, he showered and drove the seven miles from his Aurora home back to the Community Living Center. All through the night he sat with the lieutenant, watching him seize, watching him fight to breathe, watching him struggle and win, and then watching him do it all again. Julian took a nap in his truck at 3 a.m. At 4:30 he said goodbye and went to work. Eight hours later, he’s back in Room 143. He’s shaken out his ponytail so his wavy gray hair flows down over his Home of the Brave T-shirt. He wants fresh clothes and a shower to wash off the smell of the day. He can’t stand feeling grimy.
But he’ll go without another night because the lieutenant needs him. Because this is what Julian does: He sits at the doorway to death, ushering his brothers through whatever portal separates us from the world we know and the uncertainty that comes next. No matter what time or what day, he’s here. Patting, soothing, cooing. No, the smell doesn’t bother Julian. He’s breathed it in some 200 times before.
The Community Living Center has several names. The small, one-story building, connected to the VA hospital by a series of underground hallways, is also known as Building 38. Until a decade ago, it was called “the nursing home.” Some volunteers and staffers still refer to it that way instead of by the modern moniker—the CLC—which is really just a sanitized way of saying “where soldiers go to die.”
The name cards outside the 27 rooms at the CLC come in many colors: Green and purple represent short stays (rehab and geriatric rehab); orange stands for respite; brown equates to long-term care; and blue means palliative or hospice care. Most of the time, almost all of the cards are blue.
The patients on this floor come from all eras—World War II, Korea, Vietnam, peacetime, the Gulf War, and current conflicts. They are men and women, officers and enlisted personnel, pilots, sailors, soldiers, and Marines. Some have family and friends who visit. Many don’t. Some play solitaire to while away the hours between meals and meds. Others simply sit and stare—at the TV, out the window, at each other. They come to the CLC from different places and different backgrounds and with different ailments, but they all share one thing: They know they will probably never leave.
Julian knows this, too. He’s been a housekeeper at the VA for 10 years, and while his work during the day keeps him confined to the hospital’s upper floors, he’s often down here after hours. He watches to see which patients have visitors, which ones don’t, and who’s nearing the end. When they get close, he introduces himself. He makes friends. And then he sits with them until the end. He calls himself the 11th Hour.
Julian started his volunteer work eight years ago as part of the Denver VA’s Compassion Corps. Established by the VA’s volunteer coordinators and hospice care workers about 10 years ago, the program trained civilians and former military personnel in the art of being present for death. The CLC has many volunteers—the harp player who comes in on Mondays, the therapy dog that visits each Friday—but Compassion Corps was, and is, unique. Palliative care nurses oversaw the training, which included 16 hours of reading, videos, and role-playing. The videos weren’t just of the afterschool-special variety, simply detailing how to talk to someone nearing death (although there were some of those, too). They were of raw, gritty, often gruesome war footage. Of men killing. Of men dying. Of pieces of what were formerly men. “They wanted you to see what the vets saw,” Julian says, “so you’d understand.” But Julian already knew something about this: He’d enlisted in the Army in 1967 at the age of 17.
You’ll find Adams City High School where East 72nd Avenue ends and the plains begin. This is the place where storm clouds start to gather and turn Denver’s blue skies the color of the plentiful concrete underneath. Apart from the school, there’s little more than power lines and pavement and—across Quebec Parkway—a couple of pawn shops and quickie marts. There was even less when Julian was a student here.
Julian moved to the Denver area from Trinidad when he was in kindergarten. His parents had separated when he was two, and his mother was following the first of what would be four husbands. Julian and his eight siblings spent the next few years settling and re-settling into various homes and neighborhoods along I-76 between Denver and Fort Lupton. In 1960, they landed in Commerce City. Much like it does today, the area held a large Hispanic population, and by the mid-’60s, tensions between Hispanics and whites were high. They spilled over into the yellowed grass of Adams City High in the first semester of Julian’s freshman year.
One day, as the five-foot-four-inch wrestler—“Tiny,” to those close to him—waited in line with his friend at a store across the street from the school, two white boys dumped soda on Julian’s shoe. They exchanged words, and later in the day when Julian saw the boys on school grounds, the argument escalated to blows. They fell, tussling on the hard, dry earth. One of the students ended up on top of Julian, hammering the teenager with punches. Julian’s friend kicked the teen, hard, to get him off. The white boys ran home and called the cops. Shortly after, police officers showed up at Julian’s home and took him in for questioning. They wanted him to identify his friend. He wouldn’t. The boy had recently been released from a juvenile detention facility, and Julian knew fighting would get him sent back. The police were adamant, but so was Julian. He spent the next couple of days in jail—until his friend turned himself in.
Because the fight had occurred on school grounds, Julian would not be allowed back at Adams City High until he and his mother met with the principal. Julian’s relationship with his mother was complicated: He was protective of the small-framed woman despite her occasional cruelty. When Julian refused to call his stepfathers “Dad,” his mother would fly into a rage, telling him he was stupid, that he wouldn’t amount to anything. Still, Julian was her “hijo,” her son, and she loved him. So she went with him to the principal’s office and, according to Julian, endured a torrent of insults about her lifestyle, her many boyfriends. “Are you done?” she asked the principal as Julian sat, twitching at her side. He nodded. “Sic him, Julian.” The teenager leapt across the desk and punched the principal; office staff had to pull him off. Julian was expelled from Adams City High and kicked out of the school district.
He had few options, so at 15, Julian began working. He removed radiators at service stations and did yard work and other odd jobs. And so it went for the next year: Julian working during the day, sometimes fighting at night, occasionally getting picked up by the police. After an evening of pitching nickels with friends, police stopped Julian on his way home. It was close to curfew, 10 p.m. for minors. When the police discovered the change in his pockets—his winnings—they took Julian to the station for questioning about a rash of thefts from soda machines, eventually releasing him after a few hours. But Julian was fed up. Not long after the incident, he and his friend Jim Vigil walked into the Marine recruiting office, determined to get out of town.
Julian’s reputation followed him, though. At that stage, still relatively early in the Vietnam War, the Marines typically didn’t accept teens with histories of fighting. But the Army did. “Jim and me went down to MEPS [the Military Entrance Processing Station] that day and took our tests,” Julian says. “That night they had us on a plane to Fort Bliss.”
The IV drips quietly as Julian leans over the lieutenant, a tiny sponge in one hand, a washcloth in the other. There’s a small amount of pain medication in the IV, enough to keep the lieutenant, who’s dying of lung cancer, somewhat comfortable, but that’s it. He still seizes and strains against the disease. With his left hand, Julian presses the sponge to the lieutenant’s lips, wetting them and giving him a sip of water. With his right, Julian places the cloth on the lieutenant’s head, then gently rubs a thumb across his brow. “When I rub their foreheads, it’s like when mama would rub your head when you were sick. That’s how I let him know I’m still here,” Julian says. “I learned it when I was watching my dad.”
Julian was 36 when his father died. He’d gone to the doctor with a cold he couldn’t shake. An X-ray revealed a spot on his lung. They did surgery right away, but when they got inside, they could see it was too late. They closed him back up. Six months, they said. He lasted three. He wanted to die at home, so hospice nurses came to the house and helped prepare Julian and his siblings. They explained that their father would slowly regress; he’d lose his memory, himself. He would need constant care, someone always at his side. “I told them, ‘I can’t do this. I’m too weak,’??” Julian says. “But in the end I did. I sat with him. I watched him. It was my first experience with death.”
When he talks about his father, Julian almost always tears up. He was a good man, he’ll tell you. He taught him manners. How to love. How not to judge. These are lessons Julian brings to the CLC every day, because while many of the patients are heroes, few of them are saints. Like most of us, they’ve made good decisions and bad ones. Some choices have cost them jobs, friends, families, and homes, and so some find themselves alone—or almost alone. “You can see some good and some bad in all of them,” Julian says. “Once they come through that door, though, it doesn’t make any difference who they are, what they are, or where they’ve been. Once you come in that door, you’re mine.”
Julian sometimes worries about making a connection with his patients. But he keeps coming back. Because if he doesn’t, who will? Some of them, the ones still in denial about death, push him away. They can be grumpy—“ornery,” Julian calls them, even mean. Others are easier. “Like him,” Julian says, nodding toward the lieutenant. He’s still holding his hand. “Just that little bit of time we spent together talking about things…I keep thinking, We could have been friends.”
And they could have been. They’re close in age, though illness has aged the lieutenant decades beyond those he’s actually lived. Or maybe it was the stress of sending soldiers to their deaths in Vietnam. The lieutenant spent three years in the Army, one of them as part of an armored division in Quang Tri. The place sounds familiar to Julian, as it should to all of us: Nearly 1,000 American soldiers died in Quang Tri during the Tet Offensive. By the time he came home from Vietnam, the lieutenant had collected a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and—to hear Julian tell it—invisible scars. Julian’s war, though, was different.
Julian spent the first night of his deployment sleeping on a cot in the aisle of the barracks. It was June 1967, and the base on Okinawa didn’t have room for him and all of the other newly arrived soldiers. At 1 a.m., the barracks door burst open. “Get up!” the first sergeant yelled. “Outside! Now! Form up!” Bewildered soldiers stumbled into the warm rain and fell into formation. They stayed there for the next few hours “practicing” slitting their wrists lengthwise, along the vein, instead of horizontally, because a private had tried—and failed—to kill himself that way earlier in the day.
Julian knew only five of the soldiers he stood next to. The rest of the men from his military occupational specialty had already been sent to Vietnam. Like Julian, those five soldiers were only 17, generally considered too young for combat. After basic training, Julian became a fix-it generalist—a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, as he’s fond of saying. But when he arrived in Okinawa, his superiors signed him up for the missile crew. His job was to make sure the firing pins stayed in working order in the event Okinawa ever came under attack.
The island was a kind of in-between place for American troops. Young men on their ways to and from Vietnam would come through; battle-weary soldiers were sent to the island for a few days or weeks of R and R. “They were messed up,” Julian says. “They’d act really strange.” He remembers one soldier tossing his mattress on the ground outside the barracks and spending every hour, every day jumping onto it from the roof. He was practicing for a parachute, he told Julian. For the most part, Julian stayed away from these GIs. He instead spent his spare time near the Suicide Cliffs.
Tucked along Okinawa’s idyllic southern shore, the Suicide Cliffs today are home to Peace Memorial Park, a remembrance of the more than 150,000 people who died on the island in World War II. During the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, thousands of Japanese citizens and soldiers leapt from these cliffs, opting to die by their own hands rather than face the Americans. (The Japanese army’s propaganda depicted the Americans as demons and convinced many members of the local population that to be captured by them was a fate worse than death.)
When Julian was there, though, there was no park. There was no memorial. In fact, the rocky bluffs were largely off-limits to American military personnel. The Army warned troops not to venture to the area because the locals couldn’t be trusted and many of them still might believe the old stories about Americans and try to harm them. Julian ignored the advice.
The cliffs were just a mile from where he worked, so he’d often wander down to them and the little store nearby. He’d buy two small bottles of sake: one for him and one for the locals. Although they couldn’t really communicate, Julian still sat with the men and sometimes their wives and families. “Somewhere out there, there are a bunch of photos of me holding little Japanese babies,” Julian says. They’d smile at one another, appreciate the landscape and the warm glow of the sake. Here, Julian felt most comfortable. He spent less time at the cliffs as his tour went on, though: When he had an altercation with a sergeant he never liked, he put in for a transfer to be a dog handler with the military police. The Army acquiesced, and Julian spent the rest of his time in Okinawa accompanied by his dog, Hettle. But the new job meant he wasn’t always close to the cliffs—and his friends—on the southern shore.
Julian returned to the States in 1968 and was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His high school buddy Jim Vigil had come home before him, a Purple Heart recipient, but one who lived. Julian felt somehow lesser in the company of such men, the ones who had experienced combat. Outraged American protesters made no such distinction. “They called me baby killer, all of it,” Julian says of his return. His mother and stepfather even asked him not to come to a prayer group because they were embarrassed by his service. The experience was scarring. Julian served out the rest of his enlistment behind a curtain of shame: guilt for never fighting, for having lived, and for having been a part of something his fellow Americans hated, even when the choice really wasn’t his. Hurt, angry, and confused, Julian did not re-enlist. On January 23, 1970, he walked out of Fort Sill and away from the Army. He did not take his uniforms—not a shirt, not a jacket. All he took was a hat. He was done.
Between episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and nature shows, Julian and the lieutenant would talk about life. About cigars and women. About the war they were both a part of. How they hated it. Julian for the emptiness not fighting left in him, and the lieutenant for sending soldiers—boys—like Julian to die. “He told me I was lucky,” Julian says. “That he understood I had regrets, but that I was lucky.”
He pauses. The lieutenant’s breathing has become labored. Atrophied chest muscles strain against the light blue cotton gown. “I’m here for you, brother,” Julian says, his fingers around the lieutenant’s, his thumb caressing a warm hand wrapped in tissue-paper skin. The lieutenant’s cloudy eyes track toward Julian. One first, the other a heartbeat behind. He exhales. In the silence between breaths, it’s easy to mark time; the clock’s second hand is the loudest sound in the room. It ticks past 30 before the next inhale. Is it the last? How many more can the body fight for?
Those less familiar with death lean in, not wanting to miss the last inhale or movement, a final involuntary twitch. Julian doesn’t. He’s been here before. He’s seen this. He knows watching for it won’t change it. And so he reads. He watches television. He holds hands and when the pain comes, he grips tighter and whispers. But he doesn’t give in to the threat of death. He doesn’t squinch up his face and peer close, looking for the final marker. He simply waits.
You don’t end up on Julian’s street in Aurora’s Expo Park neighborhood by accident. It’s a direct route to nowhere for everyone except the people who live along the rainbow-shaped stretch of ’70s architecture. The ranch-style homes on this working-class block come with big garages, tall trees, and large yards maintained to varying degrees. Julian’s front lawn is tidy; the driveway is free of weeds. A flagstone footpath through the grass invites visitors from the sidewalk straight to the front door.
It’s only about a 15-minute drive from the house, which Julian shares with his daughter and three great-grandchildren, to the CLC, but sometimes even that’s too long. Sometimes by the time he gets there, his patients are gone. “Once I’ve left, if I come home, my family knows I’ve lost one,” Julian says. The house is Julian’s 18th residence in Aurora. He bought a rambling split-level here in 1976 with enough room for his then wife, Francis, and their two children, Angela and Julian Jr. A year later Francis was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and according to Julian, after that she changed. “She didn’t want me anymore,” he says. The two had married shortly after Julian returned from Fort Sill. He’d known Francis, a devout Catholic, since junior high, when he was close with her brother Jim, the friend with whom he’d joined the Army. “She was the best thing for me,” Julian says.
After Francis’ diagnosis, Julian’s life began a familiar slide: He started drinking too much and fighting. After one particularly hard-drinking night, Julian ended up talking back to some police officers, which landed him first in jail, and then in a recovery center for those who have substance-abuse problems.
Julian and Francis divorced in 1986. He cut back on alcohol, but anger simmered just beneath his omnipresent grin. It took very little to set him off, particularly if he felt slighted by those in positions of authority, like his bosses. As a result, Julian floated between a series of jobs through the ’80s and ’90s, working at restaurants and apartment complexes and eventually for the City of Aurora. One of those jobs was at Mile High Frozen Foods, where his children also worked. The company would provide food to the families of returning troops at welcome-home ceremonies, and in 2007 Julian went to one with his daughter. They waited on the tarmac with the families, who held banners and flowers as the planes came in. “They landed so close you could see the faces of the men and women in the windows of the plane as they were coming down,” his daughter, Angela, says. “This was the first time their feet were hitting American soil. There’s hot food. It’s a thank-you for your service. I remember his face when he saw the reception these young men and women had coming back. He was silent for a long time.”
In 2006, Julian got a job at the VA, where his old high school buddy and former brother-in-law Ralph Vigil (Jim’s brother), was also employed. Ralph, too, had served in the military. The Marine had gone to Vietnam a year ahead of Julian, and he came home with a Purple Heart. It was Ralph who recruited Julian into the VA’s Compassion Corps. He’d joined the program in 2007. Growing up in Commerce City, he’d seen that Julian was always willing when the Vigil family—or any of his friends—needed help. Julian was the kind of guy who’d help you move a washing machine up three flights of stairs. He’d tip a waiter $10 on just a glass of iced tea. “You need something? Julian’s right there,” Ralph says. “And if he says he’s going to do it, he’ll do it.” Ralph pestered Julian for roughly a year to join him. Julian deflected his requests, until one day he finally gave in. After his first training session, he could see the head nurse wasn’t too impressed with him, but Julian had given his word to Ralph that he’d try—even if it were just to shut him up. “I wouldn’t quit, and she wouldn’t throw me out,” Julian says. “So I was stuck.”
As soon as Julian hit the CLC, though, something changed. In the presence of patients there was no latent fury, no anti-authoritarian anger—only a gentle spirit, wearing a smile, who seemed to always find the right words, even in the moments when there were no words. “Some of them want to tell you their life story. Some of them want to tell you about their kids. Some of them just wanna bullshit ya. I listen,” Julian says. “Sometimes I’ll ask a question if I get the feeling they want me to. Sometimes they want you to ask so they can tell.”
Julian shares their stories, too. He has favorites, like the one about a grumpy patient who always had some kind of tall tale. He’d often say to his roommate and to Julian that when death came, he was going to outrun it. They all would laugh. One morning, after arriving before his shift to check on his patients, Julian asked a nurse about his storyteller. “That’s funny,” she said, “I haven’t heard him bitching yet.” Together they went to his room and found the man on the floor. As the pair picked him up, the nurse holding his lower body, Julian lifting his upper, a whoosh of air escaped. “I smelled it,” Julian says. “The smell of death. ‘He’s gone,’ I said.” The roommate nodded: “He said, ‘Here it comes. It ain’t gonna get me.’ And he took a step out of bed and went down.”
Julian smiles a little when he tells that story. It’s sad, but it’s also kind of funny. And if you can’t laugh at death a little, he’ll say, well, you can’t really live. He’s learned other lessons along the way: Don’t enter a room without being invited, don’t interrupt, don’t leave without saying when you’ll be back, and make damn sure you keep that promise. “Because a lot of time all they have is you. They have nothing else,” Julian says. “These people, they’re watching for when you come and when you go. They’re marking time by you.”
The lieutenant doesn’t have many visitors. The nurses and doctors, of course; a couple of friends from Nebraska; and the occasional volunteer. He has a sister in the Midwest, but she’s ill herself and can’t make it. When the lieutenant still could speak, the nurses called her so the pair might have a last moment together, if even just by phone.
But really, his only regular guest is Julian. He watches Everybody Loves Raymond on his own now, usually to keep himself awake. During the daylight hours he plays a CLC recording. A soothing female voice says over gentle nature sounds: Follow the birds to a beautiful shore. He watches the shadows slide across the bed and listens to the rhythm of the CLC outside Room 143—the crackle of the intercom, the swish of doctors’ coats, a passing gurney’s rattle and squeak.
Sometimes the squeak signifies death. It’s often the sign of a funeral procession or, as they call them here, a Freedom Procession. In the CLC, there’s usually about one a week. A couple of patients in wheelchairs often lead the procession, followed by family members and friends carrying tiny flags. Then comes the gurney, always creaking. A homemade flag drapes the body. Someone carries a boom box that plays “Taps.” As the gurney passes each room, its resident, if he’s able, falls in behind. They follow the gurney past the nurses station, past where the CLC’s faux wood floor turns into linoleum tiles. Beneath fluorescent lights, shoed and slippered feet shuffle through a labyrinth of beige hallways, walking, limping, rolling all the way to the morgue. Here, they stop. They remove their caps. They salute. They might say a few words, and then the gurney rolls through the final threshold. A nurse pulls the doors tight.
“It’s a nice thing,” Julian says. “A nice way to say goodbye to them.” They are often nameless, at least to Julian. He’s terrible with names; he’s constantly forgetting. But maybe it’s easier not remembering or ever even knowing. In life they’re simply brother, buddy, partner, friend. For women, it’s honey or dear. In death they become their stories. The man who survived the Bataan Death March. The soldier who had to call in fire on his own troops. The woman from the Women’s Army Air Corps who blew Julian a kiss just before she died. The soldier whose family sat with him for an hour after he passed, not realizing he was dead. The man whose wife visited him every single day for months—and kept coming back to his room for a week after he was gone. The feisty officer who insisted he’d live to his 75th birthday. He did. Julian was there. A few minutes before midnight, Julian ran down the hallway to get a cupcake out of the vending machine to celebrate. The officer died the next afternoon.
And there was Julian’s very first patient. “He wasn’t religious,” Julian says. “He didn’t want last rites or anything. But before he died, he did tell me to thank my higher power for him.” Julian rarely uses the word “God” with his patients. He’ll pray with those who believe, and he can recite the rosary, but he doesn’t impose his viewpoint on the dying. His perspective isn’t easily classified anyway. A one-time Catholic, Julian stopped going to church years ago when he found himself unmoved and unable to focus. But he still believes in something bigger; he’s spiritual but not selective about the spirit. He often wears a dream catcher earring. He prays. He meditates. It just depends on what he needs. “When you pray, you’re asking for strength and forgiveness from the Lord,” Julian says. “When you’re meditating, you’re looking for understanding—you’re finding strength from the inside.”
Julian’s bedroom is six steps down from his living room. It’s more than his bedroom—it’s his sanctuary. “The kids, they know when the gate [at the top of the stairs] is closed, you don’t go down there,” his daughter, Angela, says. There’s a couch and a TV and in front of the TV an array of certificates, ribbons, and other memorabilia spelling out his grandkids’ and great-grandkids’ accolades in colorful card stock. A towel from Colorado State University, where his grandson is a student, hangs on one side of the TV stand; a carving from his best friend rests on the other. And in the middle, in a place where he can see it every day, sits his 2015 Irving Hale Veterans Organization of the Year award from VFW Post 1. Post 1 has given the award out for the past eight years to recognize organizations that have made significant impacts on the veteran community.
Julian accepted his award in front of more than 400 people—Medal of Honor recipients and former POWs among them—who packed into the Brown Palace’s Grand Ballroom this past December at Post 1’s Founders Banquet. They were quiet and attentive as Julian started his acceptance speech. “I’m not a veteran of foreign wars,” he said. “I guess my heavenly father decided to put me in a different place so I could come back to do the volunteer work that I do. It comes from your heart, my teacher told me. And the way I’ve been honored tonight—all you people have shown me your heart—me and my brothers who went to war.” He cited Jim Doyle, a Pearl Harbor survivor who photographed the horror of that day and who was seated at his table. He choked up. Recovered. Continued. “I usually don’t get a chance to talk to them that way—usually it’s on the bedside,” Julian said. By the end of the short speech there wasn’t an able body in a chair, only a handful of dry eyes, and as Julian left the stage, he cried.
If you weren’t at that dinner, if you hadn’t been in Julian’s room, you wouldn’t know just how much the acknowledgement means to him. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know he was doing the work at all. You wouldn’t know he’s logged close to 2,000 hours at bedsides. That he’s been present for at least 200 deaths. He doesn’t tell people about it. His best friend didn’t know for more than a year. He doesn’t even really talk to his family about it, especially not about the dying. “But we know,” Angela says. “When it’s been a hard one, he comes home almost hyperemotional. He’s sometimes overly happy—dancing and singing—to make up, I think, for the sadness.” She knows he’s hurting on these days, and that’s difficult. But she also knows being there helps him heal whatever rawness is left from his military service. He says he feels like he’s paying something back for not going to Vietnam. “It’s liberating for him, even if it’s emotionally hard,” Angela says. “And we just have to be OK with not knowing.”
There are other compromises, too: the hours Julian is away from home, the family dinners he has missed. His family not only understands his work, though; they also encourage it. His granddaughter, who earned an academic scholarship to St. Mary’s Academy in Cherry Hills Village, graduated this past May. Her commencement was on a Saturday, and she had planned a big party for the following day. That same Sunday, though, the VA held its twice-yearly memorial service for all the patients who had died in the previous six months. It’s a stirring ceremony complete with candles and bell-ringing and poem-reading and eulogies—a communal, solemn celebration of life and also of death. Julian hasn’t missed one since he began volunteering. But this one, he would, of course, for his granddaughter, who was bound for the University of Missouri. No, his granddaughter told him. The important part is the graduation, not the party. You be there for that. Then go be with your friends. So he went to see his brothers recognized instead. “My grandkids, as they’ve gotten older, try to understand why I could sit with people and watch them die,” Julian says. “I tell them it’s because they don’t have anybody. They don’t have families, and they need someone beside them.”
Perhaps that’s why the patients without family are the toughest for Julian. That’s when he prays. He asks for the strength to see through whatever wrongs they have done, to find a connection, to see their humanity. “In these times I wonder, What kind of man could he have been if he had family to stand by him?” he says. In their absence, Julian fills in. He wants to. He has to. While several VAs around the country have end-of-life volunteer programs—Denver Health has one, too—Compassion Corps has shrunk. When Julian started, the Denver VA’s Compassion Corps had close to 20 volunteers. Slowly, that number dwindled, drawn down as volunteers departed, having seen too much, smelled too much, grieved too much. Today, there is one. There is only Julian.
On Thursday, the lieutenant stops breathing for a full minute. Julian waits and waits, and when the next inhale finally comes, he sighs, and then he cries. He doesn’t do that often. But the lieutenant is different. He’s special. Some of them, a few of them, are. It hurts his friend Mercy Tekle—Julian’s favorite CLC nurse—to see this. “I tell him, ‘You can’t go to the ground with them,’?” she says. And usually Julian doesn’t.
When he recovers, Julian says he gives the lieutenant another day, maybe two. The lieutenant’s fishing buddy shows up a little while later. He’s driven eight hours to see his old friend, and he’s clearly shaken by the state he finds him in. The friend inquires about the people in the room, a little confused. “He doesn’t have any family here…” he says, trailing off, eyes on the nurses, on Julian. Quietly, expertly, Julian excuses himself from the room. Outside the tears come again.
In the military, and in war, soldiers learn and live by this solemn oath: No man left behind. And to Julian, that goes for the dying, too. “We promised them,” Julian says. “No man dies alone.” With the lieutenant’s friend now sitting with him in Room 143, Julian knows he can leave. He retires for the day. He promises the lieutenant he’ll be back tomorrow, and he is. He’s there before his shift in the morning and returns on his break at lunch. The lieutenant’s friend has stayed by his side. As Julian leaves the room, the friend is joined by his wife. Ten minutes after Julian departs, the lieutenant dies. “It happens that way a lot,” Julian says. “It’s like they’re waiting for someone to arrive, or leave, so they can go.” He thinks the lieutenant was waiting for his friend’s wife. Of course, it’s just as likely the lieutenant was waiting for Julian to go. But there’s no point in wondering. The why behind when people die is something those still on this side of the portal can never know.
It takes about an hour to prepare the body for the trip from Room 143 to the morgue. There will be no Freedom Procession for the lieutenant. He didn’t request it. There was no family to ask for it. Instead, there’s a small parade of nurses who cared for him, who liked him, and Julian. There is still, at least, the homemade flag. The walk to the morgue is quiet: no “Taps,” no conversation, just rubber-soled shuffling feet. At the entrance to the morgue, they pause. They fold the flag. Julian salutes. The doors close.
It’s a hard walk back. Julian moves slowly at the rear, jingling, jangling, fighting tears. He stops when he comes to a T. To the left is Room 143. To the right, the front doors, sunshine, and spring. He goes right. Outside, in the shade of a cherry tree, Julian continues to cry intermittently. What will he do now that his workday is done and the lieutenant is gone? “Oh, I’ll probably just go home,” he says. His truck is parked right nearby. It’s Friday. He’s got a weekend of family ahead; grandkids, great-grandkids, a lot of love. “I’ll take a shower,” he says. “Put on my brave face.” But once he’s alone, Julian stays in the shade of that tree. He stands there for a long time. Minutes—five, maybe 10. He looks up at the sky and down at the ground. He swats at tears. And then, once they have dried, he sets his shoulders and smooths his hair. He takes a step toward his truck, pauses, turns, and walks back inside.
Editor’s Note 11/3/16: In response to Julian’s story, many readers have inquired how they might help. If you’re interested in volunteering your time or donating to the VA, please visit volunteer.va.gov.