It's been six years since 1st Lt. Kimberly Colby made her first visit to an aging veteran as part of the Honor Salute program.
He was a Marine infantryman during Vietnam and had earned the Purple Heart while overseas. He was dying of colon cancer.
Colby and a Marine comrade, both in their service blues, saluted the Marine and thanked him for his service.
"He was stoic throughout the ceremony, despite being in immense pain," Colby said.
When she was about to leave, he said, "You know what? That's the first time I have ever been thanked for my service."
At the time, Colby was a cadet in the Naval Academy and was one of the first volunteers to sign up as a project leader with Honor Salute. The program began in 2010 in Maryland, for young military members at the beginning of their careers to pay tribute to veterans at the end of their lives.
"The program struck a chord with me," said Colby, whose father and grandfather were in the military.
Now stationed at Camp Pendleton, Colby has become instrumental in honoring San Diego-area veterans as a volunteer with the Escondido-based Elizabeth Hospice and the Carlsbad-based Hospice of the North Coast.
She has visited veterans at their homes and in senior living communities, and has spearheaded efforts to recruit fellow Marines as volunteers.
The hospices conduct pinning ceremonies throughout the year to recognize and thank aging veterans. The ceremony includes a "final salute," where an active-duty service member salutes the veteran.
Colby and the other Marines from Camp Pendleton spend time talking with the veterans. Some put on their old uniforms for the occasion. Some patients are able to tell their stories. Others depend on family members to share the memories.
"It is especially meaningful for those who were never welcomed home or thanked for their service," said hospice veterans specialist Lisa Marcolongo, whose husband served in the Marine Corps. "Kimberly's smile lights up a room as she shakes the hand of a veteran."
For Colby, the best parts are the stories and the instant camaraderie. The hardest thing is saying goodbye to the veteran and his family and friends.
"Honoring veterans," she said, "is something I consider a sacred obligation for those of us who wear the cloth of our nation."
McIntosh writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune