David Powell became an eyewitness to war while in Vietnam, and it played a big part in forming his current life. The experience, coupled with other events, including caring for his dying mother, has now led him to comfort fellow veterans in their final days.
Through the organization, We Honor Veterans, he honors them by listening to their stories, giving them comfort, praying at their side and, at times, standing vigil over them.
“It was my spiritual upbringing that had to do with my being more aware of people that are hurting or are in crisis,” he said.
Born in Chicago but raised in Tucson for his health, Powell graduated from Amphitheater High School in 1968.
Even as a youth, Powell’s family considered him a spiritual person: “My parents wanted me to become a chaplain’s assistant.”
The U.S. Army, in its characteristic way, had other plans for him.
Drafted in 1969, Powell found himself with the 4th Army refueling helicopters around Vinh Long Airbase in the Mekong Delta.
Powell arrived in the country around the time of the 1969 Tet attacks involving North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assaults in the Saigon area and in Da Nang, farther north.
When Powell returned to Tucson, he found himself working for his father’s business, Canyon State Industries, which at the time provided sanitation supplies throughout Arizona, including all the Native American lands.
“My travels, especially on Native American reservations, opened my eyes to the relationship between the different cultures,” Powell said. Many Native Americans are into honoring their veterans in any fashion. They are very proud of them and he came to appreciate how they were treated.
“It was heartwarming to experience their memorial services,” he said.
He quit his business in 2012 after caring for his mother, Betty, at her home the last 10 days of her life. He managed her medications and made her life as comfortable as he could. It was then she told him, “You missed your calling.”
“That statement changed my life,” he said.
Powell took an online divinity course through the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary for two years, graduating in 2015.
He became a commissioned lay pastoral minister through St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and started to work with Tucson Medical Center Hospice as well as all the hospitals in Tucson and Southern Arizona.
Powell, now 68, first began working with We Honor Veterans in 2014 and volunteered as a former military person who wanted to honor vets at TMC Hospice.
We Honor Veterans is a program under the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and works in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It provides an avenue where Powell can help veterans toward a more respectful and peaceful end to life.
On his arrival, “I show up in my uniform and have a plaque made ready for them with their name.”
It helps them that he always wears his olive drab military flight suit.
“They always start talking about their service when I arrive in uniform. It’s almost like I provide a safe comfort zone for them to talk.”
The plaque acknowledges the military branch in which the veteran served, and it has the inscription: “We thank you for your service, for serving America and for advancing the universal hope of freedom and liberty for all.”
He also places an American flag in the room or on a stand next to their bed. They receive a hatpin that shows their military branch — it is something the veterans really like the most, Powell said.
The spouse also receives a pin, which is an American flag in the shape of heart, and they are honored for caring for the veteran through the years.
Then, he gathers as many other veterans as he can at the facility and together they give the dying veteran a final salute.
He often works with WWII veterans and has had as many as eight honor ceremonies in one week. They make up for about half of his visits, he said.
It is not uncommon that they tell him they don’t deserve any recognition, but he usually tells them, “Respectfully, sir, if I can speak for myself and all Americans, we enjoy our freedoms every day because of people like you who have honorably served your country.”
He feels fortunate to hear their stories.
“It’s because of them I enjoy many freedoms. I enjoy them because of their sacrifice.”