“It’s a beautiful night,” one man standing in line at the annual Veterans Cookout said to the man behind him. “Any day on your feet is a good day,” the other man replied. The answer wasn’t just a glib wisecrack. The veterans who gathered at the Boys and Girls Club this past Thursday night risked all they had, and saw others give all they had for the cause of freedom. They came together, as guests of Derry’s two Rotary clubs, to honor each other and those who had gone before.
Under an oversized United States flag held from a crane, veterans and their spouses and other guests queued up to receive their name tags and welcome. Some walked with canes or rode in wheelchairs. They took their places under a tent, many finding friends from the community, and listened to music ranging from big band to 60s rock as food sizzled on the grill nearby.
Volunteer Rotarian cooks grilled the meat or set out salads and two large sheet cakes. Rick Metts, one of the grillmasters, scoffed at the idea of “hamburgers.” “We are giving them steak tips and chicken,” he said. Metts said the clubs had purchased 80 pounds of steak, 80 pounds of chicken, and 160 pounds of salad. “I hope they’re hungry,” he said. The turnout was bigger this year, but that didn’t faze the Rotarians. “We won’t turn anyone away,” Eddie Leon, one of the organizers, said. “We’ll even go get pizza if we have to.”
Susanne Bernier-Robinson, president of the Derry club, said Leon had received 270 reservations for the event. “It’s about 100 more than last year,” she estimated. “It’s becoming bigger and bigger.” Bernier-Robinson gave a sneak peek at this year’s gift to the veterans, an 11×14 framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. “It is so little compared to what they’ve done for their country,” she said. But for some of the vets, being there was gift enough. “I love it,” Arthur Savard, a 44-year resident of Derry, said. Savard, who served in the Korean Conflict, attended the event with his wife Fran.
“I know a lot of the people, and it’s good to interact,” he said.
Fran Savard said she particularly enjoyed meeting and thanking the older veterans, from the Second World War. “They really need to be thanked, and this is a little ‘God bless them,’” Fran Savard said. Ken and Kathy Rouleau, former neighbors of the Savards, joined them at their table. Though Ken is a member of both the VFW and American Legion, he takes every chance to meet other veterans, Kathy Rouleau said. “It’s wonderful that people get to bond like this – there’s a common denominator,” Kathy Rouleau said.
Ken, a Vietnam veteran, said he didn’t experience the negative reaction many returning vets suffered. Pat Patterson of Londonderry served his country from 1948 to 1976, surviving Korea, Vietnam and a stint in the Phillippines. Patterson said in his opinion, the treatment of veterans hasn’t improved much. “It’s almost a disaster,” he said, pointing out that medical issues and depression are not being addressed enough.
A disabled veteran, Patterson said he has to pay for his own medication. It is cheaper from a big-box pharmacy than through the VA, he said.
But he did enjoy getting together with the other veterans, he added. “We don’t see each other enough. Most combat veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences, unless it’s with another combat vet.” Most of the dinner guests were from the Vietnam, Korea, or World War II eras. Shawn Laroque of Derry was one of the younger vets, having served in the Marine Corps from 1993 to 2000. It was his first time at the dinner, he said, and he came because, “I wanted to support the older veterans, tell them I appreciate what they did.”
Eighty-eight-year old Herb Billingsley is a Navy veteran of World War II. “I was only a seaman,” he said modestly. And he shrugged off the “Greatest Generation” label placed by media on the Second World War servicepeople. “I went to war because I didn’t want to have to learn Japanese or German,” he said. BIllingsley was also one of the World War II veterans the Rotary clubs treated to a trip to Washington, D.C. in 2008, he said.
He shared a table with Jim Bilotta, 93, a Pearl Harbor survivor. “I’ve been to the cookouts before,” Bilotta said. “These people are wonderful – they think of everything.”
Bilotta joined the Marines at 19, on Dec. 29, 1939. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he said with a smile. While he has no regrets about defeating Hitler, he wonders if it’s time for his country to retrench a little. “Sometimes I wish we didn’t try so hard to help people,” Bilotta admitted. “Why do they hate us so much? We do so much good for the world – or we try to.”
Bilotta said he agreed with the “Greatest Generation” label. “Everybody went out and did what we had to do,” he said. “We didn’t ask, ‘Why?’”
Bilotta, a member of the VFW, has observed America’s treatment of veterans for more than half a century, and gives his country high marks. “They appreciate servicemen, and this group does a good job,” he said of the Rotary.
But they could get appreciated even more, tablemate Paul Loffler suggested jokingly. “You guys would get more sympathy if you told them you were World War I veterans. Then they’d say, ‘Wow, you guys look good!’” The dinner was followed by a program. Craig Bulkley, a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, was master of ceremonies. Speakers included Peter March, president of the Derry Rotary Club, with the welcome; the Pledge of Allegiance led by Derry Police Chief Edward Garone; the National Anthem sung by Julie Huss of Chester; a prayer by Vickie Chase; and an address by U.S. Army Specialist Derek Ball. U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte was also scheduled to speak.