FORT BENNING, GA – “Daddy I’m going to honor you and I’m going to honor all these people at this hospital who took such good care of you,” promised retired Col. Joe Bell’s daughter Nancy. “”I kissed him and I said I’m going to take care of other Soldiers too. Because I know there are those out there who are all alone.”
The 95-year-old veteran of WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War passed away on May 8 after battling Alzheimer’s and a stroke. The sole heir of the Bell legacy has made it her mission to turn her grief into compassion for and continued service to forgotten Soldiers.
Service above and beyond apparently runs in the family. Nancy only recently discovered her father had not only founded an orphanage during his tour in Long Binh, Vietnam, but supported it for years.
“My daddy wasn’t really crazy about kids. He would say just because you are my children doesn’t mean I have to love you,” shared Nancy. “I was going through some paperwork the other day. My father would call his supply sergeant and say I want you to give these nuns whatever supplies they need, get them food, get them bandages.
“I find out my father had a well built, they called it Bell’s Well. There was a beautiful letter written from the nun of the orphanage. You don’t know these stories until after the fact. Here was this tough old colonel, this old German who is now extending his hand to these orphans and making sure the nuns were taken care of.”
A stroke may have hindered the former artillery man’s mobility, but it didn’t stop him from extending a hand to those less fortunate, especially down on their luck veterans.
“Hank Aaron, the baseball player, owned before he passed the local Krispy Kreme. For the last 14 years, he gave me all the leftover donuts. So it started out with about 20 dozen,” said Nancy. “We called it donuts and dollars. Daddy had 200 one dollar bills. We would drive around 6 o’clock in the morning all around downtown, in the projects, and find somebody, give them a box of donuts and I’d say to them this is from Hank Aaron. Daddy would give them a couple of dollars. It was a beautiful thing to keep us active.”
And last Christmas, Bell and his daughter raised money to pay the property taxes for five elderly veterans who weren’t 100% disabled and were at risk of losing their homes. They dubbed it Operation My Home for Another Holiday. Shared tragedy and pain may have forged the Bells’ compassion and empathy.
“My mom passed at 34. She had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, both my older brothers were terminal (hemophiliacs who contracted AIDS through tainted blood transfusions) and she didn’t want any attention taken off them. She allowed the mass to take over. I was 10, my brothers were 12 and 14,” said Nancy. “People even came up to my dad and said it’ll be okay if you put your children up for adoption because this was back in those days. And he said no one else will raise my children. He was being groomed to be a general. And he declined in order to take care of his handicapped sons.”
Nancy left her job as the Morale Officer at the Kuwait Embassy to become the sole caregiver for her dad, 15 years ago. The Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient had been bedridden for the last few years. So Nancy was prepared. But when the end came, it came quickly.
“Dad had a little black spot on his toe and I thought maybe he had a blood blister. Then in the middle of the night he is screaming. I come running in. I just thought we were having another bout of PTSD. But he held up his hand and said ‘hold my hand and help me,’” said Nancy. “I thought this is so unusual because my father is not a hugger. He was in such pain. So I called the ambulance.
“This is how my dad is, I had to shave him. Then he said ‘You are a colonel’s daughter, put on a suit.’ I had to put on a three piece suit and pearl earrings before I could call the ambulance.”
Nancy begged the ambulance crew to take her father to Martin Army Community Hospital because she knew the sight of uniforms would help put her father at ease.
“When I came into the emergency room there was a beautiful young blonde behind the screen. I was panicking because I thought they would be asking him questions and I wasn’t by his side. I said ‘my dad is here and I need to get back there and help him,’” recalled Nancy. “She got up, came around and hugged me. This girl had to be in her late twenties, early thirties. She said ‘Nancy, your dad is going to be okay, we’re going to put him in a room and I’m going to come get you.’
“When I got in the room, they had given my dad some morphine and now he is singing. The only way I could get my dad to say I love you was I would wake him in the morning with the song ‘You are my Sunshine.’ I would sing and then go like this and his part was ‘I love you.’”
Her dad was in the emergency room for six hours. Everywhere they go Nancy always brings her own diapers and changes her dad alone. But because he was in so much pain she asked ER Nurse Capt. Darrell Mackenzie to find her an attendant to help.
“He said ‘I’ll help you.’ And I pointed to his rank and asked when is the last time you changed a diaper?” recalled Nancy. “And he said ‘I’m going to change this veteran’s diaper.’ And he did. I was just blown away.
“Then the physician (Physician Assistant Kirk Brown) came in and said ‘Nancy I’ve called St. Francis and they are going to amputate your father’s leg because the black spot is necrosis.’ I said ‘you are not cutting off this Soldier’s leg. He’s 95.’ He said ‘I just needed to tell you both sides.’
“And then he slid me a piece of paper. He said ‘I’ve just called my wife. She cared for both of her parents and they passed and she was dealing with hospice. Here’s her phone number. Call, she is going to help you.’ Who does that? Nobody does that!”
Nancy made the difficult decision to put her father in hospice, rather than seek treatment. She brought him home. The next day he went to hospice. And two days later he passed.
“I got 20 Chick fil-a sandwiches and two big bouquets of flowers. I took one to Vic (Victor Vizcarrondo, BMACH Patient Advocate) because Vic is Vic. I took the other to the emergency room. And I said ‘Gentlemen I just want you to know this is what you do daily, but that was my dad, that was my hero,’” explained Nancy. “The courtesies and kindness you gave to him. The last thing he saw was uniforms. He saw Soldiers. I couldn’t have asked for a finer sendoff. That was our last moments together when he was lucid.
“These people here loved on me, they loved and respected my dad. I couldn’t have asked for anything else. So while he was at hospice after I promised him I will take care of other veterans who are struggling.”
Nancy buried her father alone, the day before Mother’s Day. Col. Joe Bell’s headstone is simply engraved “I am Always a Soldier.”
“Last thing I told him was that his sons were waiting and that he did a great job as a Soldier and as a dad. And if he would watch over me and send me a good man. He needs to be tall, dark and handsome,” joked Nancy. “I have some hutzpah, the German in my dad. I’ll get through this. But the only way I can is if I extend a hand.