It's been six years since 1st Lt. Kimberly Colby, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, made her first visit to a dying veteran as part of the Honor Salute program.
It still sticks out in her mind.
He was a Marine infantryman during Vietnam and had earned the Purple Heart while overseas. He was dying of colon cancer.
During the visit, she and a fellow comrade, both in their service blues, saluted the Marine and thanked him for his service.
USAF photo by Senior Airman Mackenzie Richardson
"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 (midshipman) in the Naval Academy and was one of the first volunteers to sign up as a project leader with Honor Salute, then known as Final Salute. The program began in 2010 at Hospice of the Chesapeake in Pasadena, Md., 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. Her grandfather was in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and her father served in the Marine Corps during the post-Vietnam era.
Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Patrick J. DeGeorge, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs
Now after being 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.
Colby has visited veterans at their homes and in senior living communities across the county and has spearheaded efforts to recruit fellow Marines as volunteers at the nonprofit hospices.
The hospices conduct pinning ceremonies throughout the year to recognize aging veterans and thank them for their military service. Ceremonies are held in dining halls of area senior living communities and at bedside for hospice patients. The ceremony includes a "Final Salute" where an active-duty service member salutes the veteran.
Since 2012, The Elizabeth Hospice has recognized more than 2,300 veterans.
Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nolan Kahn
Colby and the other Marines from Camp Pendleton who participate in the ceremonies spend time talking with the veterans. Some patients are able to share stories and some put on their old uniforms for the occasion, while 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 the hospice's 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," Marcolongo said.
For Colby, the best part are the stories and instant camaraderie that can be built. The hardest part is saying goodbye to the veteran and his family and friends.
"Honoring veterans is something I consider a sacred obligation for those of us who wear the cloth of our nation," Colby said.
Colby's advice for current service members: "Go out of your way to honor veterans. It is within our lifetime that we will lose all WWII and Korean War veterans. Their stories and sacrifices should be honored."
The Elizabeth Hospice is looking for veterans and active-duty service members to participate in its veteran pinning ceremonies.