Bill Dooley was one of the lucky ones, though he doesn’t always see it that way.
Dooley, a member of the Greatest Generation, enlisted in the Navy at 17 with the hopes of serving on a ship in the Pacific. Trained in commissary work, he put himself forward several times to serve in the war zone, and made it as far as Okinawa. He lived in a tent with the shower a mile away, attached to a Seabees unit that was building barracks in the area. Before he could make the cut for a ship, the war ended.
But he was ready to serve, and came out Thursday, May 29, to honor others who did the same.
The Derry Rotary Club and Derry Village Rotary Club held their annual Veterans Barbecue May 29 at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Derry. More than 100 veterans from every conflict, and peacetime service, came out to swap stories, listen to speakers, eat – and remember those who didn’t come back.
Dooley and his wife, Peggy, were in the first group honored by the Rotary clubs five years ago, when they took World War II veterans to Washington to see the monument in their honor. “It was fantastic,” Dooley said. Since then, they’ve been regular guests at the barbecue.
Dooley enlisted after high school, and remembers his parents not giving him any grief about it. “They knew I’d be drafted,” he said with a shrug. He chose the Navy over the Army because he had worked as a civilian at an Army base in Boston and “I saw how they were treated.”
And though he wishes he could have seen combat, he’s also glad he came home alive.
As a picture of a fresh-faced Dooley in uniform flashed on the screen, he said he thinks the country appreciated veterans when he came home and appreciates them now. “They are doing the best they can,” Dooley said. “We’ve got so many people working for them, and then someone passes a law saying ‘they don’t need this, they don’t need that.’”
Charlie Sullivan of Londonderry remembers a different time. Asked if the country appreciated his service in Vietnam, he laughed and said, “No. Vietnam was the conflict that tore America apart. It was the opposite of World War II, which drew them together.”
The returning service people were treated as outcasts and the war blamed on them, Sullivan observed, in a vastly divided country. He’s been privileged to see the country heal those wounds, and is proud of the way America treats veterans and active duty members today.
“They don’t blame the soldiers any more,” Sullivan said. “Today there are still a lot of people that don’t agree with our various conflicts, but they honor you for doing your duty.”
Though he served in Vietnam, Sullivan did not see combat. He had a job repairing and maintaining the “swift boats,” he said.
Outside the building, Rotarians Eddie Leon, Alex Germaine, Rick Metz and Andrew White turned the food on sizzling grills. The Rotary ordered 70 pounds of chicken and 140 pounds of steak tips for an anticipated 300 guests, Leon said. “This is thin, cook it quickly,” he told Germaine as they dropped bits of marinated chicken on the grill.
White was the “shrimp guy,” turning skewers of the shellfish on the grill. “I like giving back to those who gave to me,” he said. “This is just a little – they’ve given so much.”
“You can write a check, but to give back you need to get involved,” Rotarian Scott Makino said as he welcomed guests under an arbor of red, white and blue balloons.
As the veterans and their guests chatted, more pictures flashed on the screen, including very young, uniformed versions of Police Chief Ed Garone, Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs, and Town Historian Rick Holmes.
The tables were decorated with pots of marigolds and tiny American flags. An oversized American flag draped the stage, behind the flags of each military branch. In addition to the steak, chicken and shrimp, guests were treated to a variety of salads, beer, wine, soda and water.
Community member Craig Bulkley, a retired colonel with the Army Reserves, was master of ceremonies. Garone led the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the National Anthem, sung by Julie Huss of Chester. Veteran Don Belinsky read a poem and Vicki Chase offered a prayer.
Karen Vaughn, a Gold Star Mother, talked about her son Aaron Carson Vaughn, a Navy SEAL who died in August 2011 when a helicopter carrying 30 Americans was shot from the sky. Vaughn said her son wanted to be a SEAL since the age of 8. A knee injury in high school stopped his dream of being a SEAL when a doctor told him he could never make it.
But Aaron Vaughn knew who he was and who God wanted him to be, his mother said. After Sept. 11, 2001, he applied to the SEAL program and was accepted. Of 157 people who started the program, seven finished, and “Aaron was one of them,” she said.
“He would step on that chopper again even if he knew the outcome,” Vaughn told the group.
Vaughn told the veterans, “This room represents some of the greatest gifts given this nation. When I’m in your presence, there is no place on earth I would rather be. You’re the ones who gave me the freedom to raise a family in this amazing republic.”
Vaughn added, “Our forefathers threw off the chains of tyranny from Great Britain. They sacrificed everything they had. They didn’t know what freedom looked like, but they did it anyway.”
When U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, arrived, she walked around the room and chatted with some of the veterans before taking the podium. Ayotte, who was speaking at the event for her second year, said, “I am honored to be here. It’s a special gathering.”
Ayotte told the veterans, “We would not be the same country if each of you had not stepped up with duty, honor and patriotism.”
That past weekend Ayotte had been in Ukraine, observing the Presidential election. “They came out in droves, they wanted to determine their own future,” she said of the Ukrainians. “It reminded me of how great our country is. We can never take that for granted.”
Ayotte said she hoped the country never had to send another generation to war, and concluded, “May God bless the greatest country on earth.”
The veterans and their guests continued to chat and have dessert, pieces of a giant red-white-and blue sheet cake, before receiving their annual gift. This year the Rotary gave them fleece jackets with the logo, “Proud American Veteran.” Eddie Leon said the clubs paid extra to make sure the jackets were made in the U.S.A.
Town Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores, the widow of a veteran, said it best when she looked out over the crowded dining room: “Isn’t this wonderful? It gets bigger and better every year.”