A pandemic couldn’t stop hospital staff from delivering the proper show of support for a Vietnam veteran.
After 18 months of planning, Wesley Buss was looking forward to taking a long–awaited honor flight. Illness and COVID-19 forced him to reschedule plans on three separate occasions, eventually causing permanent cancellation of the trip. Instead of being a story ending in disappointment, healthcare workers and members of his local community gathered together to pull off a patriotic surprise that celebrated his service, showered him with love and helped his spirits soar when he left the hospital to enter hospice care at home.
Wesley, a Wisconsin resident, served more than three decades in uniform — first in the Navy, then the Army National Guard, followed by career with the Wisconsin Capitol Police. Derek Buss, Wesley’s son, says his dad is not used to being the center of attention.
“He’s a humble guy, this is not his style,” Derek said.
The idea for a celebration of service came when ICU nurse Vanessa Pierce spent time with Wesley as a patient at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We got to talking about his service in Vietnam and how vets weren’t celebrated upon their return back then,” she said. “I thought it would be really good to clap for him and his service.”
Earlier in May, when the hospital wrapped up Health Care Appreciation Week, Pierce says, “it got me thinking about giving back to others and how this is how Wesley had spent his entire career.”
Susan Leet, a chaplain at the hospital, joined in on the plan.
“People had been so gracious in thanking us. It was our time to pay it forward and, boy, did it feel good,” Leet said.
She began working the phones to get more people involved in the celebration.
“Everyone just adores Wesley,” Leet explained. “When I reached out to the Wisconsin Capitol Police, they were excited to help as were the Badger Honor Flight volunteers.”
It turns out that Wesley and his late wife were active volunteers with their state’s chapter of Honor Flight — a nonprofit that works to transport America’s veterans to the nation’s capital to visit the memorials dedicated to honoring those who have served and sacrificed.
“Both mom and dad loved the cause and loved what they were doing to help coordinate flights for veterans,” Derek said.
After volunteering for the organization for more than a decade, Wesley had yet to complete his own flight. Preparations for the local event continued and the family got involved as did more members of the community.
“Everyone just got excited and it just blossomed into this huge thing,” Leet said about the surprise.
The planning came to fruition in mid-May when Wesley was discharged from the hospital. Upon exiting his room, he found the halls of the hospital packed with staff, waving American flags and clapping for his service. Outside the hospital, the celebration continued with Capitol Police saluting him and playing the national anthem. Volunteers from the Badger Honor Flight presented him with an award. From there, a police escort drove the family to the capitol building, where officers were stationed on every corner to offer salutes. The tour ended at the governor’s mansion, where Governor Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers waited outside to wave and salute his service.
“Dad found that really funny and likes to say, ‘I didn’t vote for him but sure appreciated it,” Derek said with a chuckle. “In the video of the event, it is hard to tell underneath his mask, but dad is grinning from ear to ear. Dad’s not one to show emotion but he was tickled. This was one of the best days of his life.”
Honor Flights remain suspended until September 1 as a precaution for the safety of the veterans’ health.
“Every year, the Honor Flight Network takes more than 20,000 veterans to Washington, DC to see the national memorials built in their honor. Eligible veterans include those who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, intermediary operations, and in special cases of terminal illness or injury, veterans of more recent service. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the veterans we serve fall into the CDC’s high-risk category. Many of the veterans also live in community settings, such as retirement homes or assisted living facilities, where the risk of spreading illness is extremely high. Honor Flight trips are often a once in a lifetime opportunity for America’s veterans, so the organization does its best to keep all trips on time and on schedule. At the same time, Honor Flight’s highest priority during trips is to maintain the veterans’ safety,” according to a statement by the Honor Flight Network.
Thanks to the onlookers who heard Wesley’s story, he was able to have a personalized experience reflective of his contributions to the nation and his community.
“He’s someone who always has wanted to be of service. You don’t think about it much and the sacrifice that comes with service, but this celebration was a big reflection. Dad kept saying, ‘I’m a nobody; I don’t deserve this.’ Everyone who planned this surprise made it pretty clear he did,” Derek added.Read comments