By Karen Vernon
For about a dozen years, Burchie and Barb Thompson have been quietly tending Mission Health’s own version of an eternal flame. Visitors to the lobby of Mission Hospital’s Memorial Campus may have noticed a large display in the alcove across from the reception desk dedicated to honoring military veterans.
Barb, an HR representative, said she really just assists Burchie, who bears most of the work involved in maintaining the veterans’ tribute and collecting the memorabilia it houses. Burchie, who retired from Mission as a respiratory therapist in 2015, credits a former colleague with the idea.
“Campbell Cauthen had the idea and approached Mission with it back in 1994,” Burchie said. Cauthen, also a respiratory therapist and a Navy veteran, got permission to build the display and helped maintain it until he left Mission to work for the Asheville Veterans Administration hospital.
Burchie, himself an Air Force veteran, said he and Cauthen saw this as a way to honor veterans in a visible way at Mission.
Now, Barb and Burchie continue the work that Cauthen began, each year swapping out the photos, plaques and medals they lovingly prepare to honor eight veterans – living or dead – while Mission helps with the minimal expenses involved in purchasing the materials.
The Thompsons said the most challenging part of this labor of love is finding people willing to share their stories, probably because many veterans don’t want the attention on themselves. There are no stringent guidelines for who can be featured, other than those honored must be veterans not serving active duty or in the Reserves. That means the display has housed photos and medals that tell the stories of current and former Mission team members, their family members or friends, or sometimes even patients or visitors who pass through and see the tribute.
“One guy was a Vietnam vet who had been a prisoner of war (POW) for six years,” Burchie recalled. “He was my patient when I worked in Respiratory Therapy, and when I asked him if we could feature him, he said he would be honored.”
The project has been a source of connection for Barb and Burchie in the community as well. It’s not at all uncommon for Burchie to approach people he sees wearing military insignia to tell them about the tribute. “I talked to a gentleman I saw in our neighborhood wearing a World War II hat,” Burchie said. “He had some incredible stories to tell, and I got to hear them while I was collecting his information. He died while his information was on display.
“When I took the photo and medal to his wife when we changed it out that year, she had tears in her eyes,” Burchie continued. “She told me this was the best photo she had of him; when I saw him, you could still see that young guy from the photo in his face.”
Barb and Burchie would love to have so many people waiting to be featured they’d have to create a waiting list from year-to-year. It does take time to get all the pieces together, so they are actively soliciting veterans to feature on the coming year’s tribute, which goes up around Veteran’s Day in November.
So why do they do it – especially Burchie, who’s now enjoying retirement?
“I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the freedoms I do were it not for these people,” Burchie said. “I just have a heart for vets – they ask nothing in return.”