James Hall shrugs off his experience as a draftee in Vietnam in 1968. “It was trying to stay alive,” he said. “It was taking the good with the bad, and hoping everything came out okay.”
His wife, Kathy, has a different take on what Vietnam did to her husband. “When we were first married, I couldn’t wake him up by touching him,” she said. “He’d go crazy.”
Hall and veterans of every war since World War II got their thank-you from Derry Thursday night, May 28, when the Derry Rotary Club and Derry Village Rotary Club joined forces for the annual Veterans Barbecue. Vets, their guests, Rotarians and town officials packed the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Derry to eat, swap stories, and bask in a gratitude that came later for some than for others.
The food was grilled outside, under the supervision of Eddie Leon, a Rotarian and owner of La Carreta Restaurant. Steaming platters of steak tips, chicken and shrimp were carried inside to be served buffet-style along with pasta and macaroni salads. Two sheet cakes waited in the cafeteria.
Community member Craig Bulkley was the master of ceremonies, introducing first the color guard. There were very few World War II vets left and many of them were in wheelchairs or on oxygen. One older man couldn’t hear or see well, and was confused when the color guard marched in. He asked loudly, “Is it the National Anthem?” His wife explained that it was the color guard. The ancient vet started to struggle to his feet and his wife braced him with her hand under his elbow. With one hand on his cane, he lifted his other trembling hand to salute the colors.
Bulkley read letters from Senators Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH and Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, then it was time for the featured speaker, Natalie Healy of Exeter, whose son Dan, a Navy SEAL, died in 2005 in a failed rescue mission. Dan Healy’s story was told in the book “Lone Survivor” by his colleague Marcus Littrell and then in the film “Lone Survivor,” starring Mark Wahlburg.
Healy joked, “If I’d known I was speaking before you ate, I would have planned a shorter speech.”
The dinner was exactly one month before the 10th anniversary of losing her son, June 28, 2005. “It has been quite a journey,” Healy said.
Healy, who at the time owned a cleaning service in Exeter, went to work the next day without watching or listening to the news. She got her first inkling that something might be wrong when a flight attendant friend called to tell her a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. When Healy’s daughter called to say 16 SEALS were on the chopper, “Somehow I knew,” Healy said. “It was like all the air went out of the room.”
She remembers looking at the Blue Star Mother flag in her window and thinking, “Please, God, don’t let it turn gold.”
She thought she was home free when she didn’t hear anything by 9:30 p.m., and went to bed. But at 3 a.m. the knock came at her door. It was the Commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and its chaplain.
The Commander later told her, “I will always remember that night, the sound of the crickets, your steps crossing the room.” It was the first time he’d had to break the news to a family, Healy recalled.
Dan, her oldest child, was a Cub Scout, a member of Little League, and an avid Red Sox fan. “I’m glad he got to enjoy the World Championship in 2004,” she said. He was a typical big brother, protective and bossy.
And he didn’t have to die. “We didn’t know till many years later,” she said, “that Danny didn’t have to go on that mission.” She learned that Dan had pulled men off the chopper, insisting he go on the rescue mission instead, because “They’re my men, and I want my face to be the first one they see.”
“It was, but not on earth,” Healy said.
It’s been an emotional roller-coaster for Healy. She’s seen a monument to Dan put up in the Exeter Rec park, which will be rededicated this June 14; grown closer to the families of the other SEALS who died in the mission; grown close to a group of Gold Star Mothers; and attended the premiere of the “Lone Survivor” movie as the guest of Wahlburg.
One of her children said at the release of the movie, “The worst day of our lives has been turned into entertainment.” But Healy prefers to see it as a history lesson, so that Danny’s sacrifice will not be forgotten.
“This is a wonderful time of year,” Healy said. “Some people say it’s not respectful to have cookouts and parties for Memorial Day. But I think it’s fine. That’s why these men and women fought – it’s for our freedom.”
Healy received a standing ovation. She was followed by veteran Don Belinsky, who read a poem about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and a closing prayer by Vicki Chase.
In addition to vets and their guests, the crowd included several State Representatives and State Senator Regina Birdsell of Hampstead, who also represents Derry and Windham.
Ozzie Henry of Derry was one of the oldest vets at 91. He served in the Coast Guard along with his late wife, Barbara. It was his first time at the dinner, he said, adding, “I saw it in the paper.”
Richard Haycook, who served in Vietnam in 1970, was also a first-timer. “Before, I either forgot about it or I was working,” he said.
Haycook has seen a shift in attitude toward veterans since he came home from Vietnam. Because of what they went through, he said, Vietnam veterans “make sure everybody is recognized for their service.”
The biggest issue faced by today’s vets is health care, Haycook said, noting, “Veterans’ medical care is a real hornet’s nest.”
Jim and Kathy Hall agreed.
Kathy Hall said that was changing slowly, and “people are a little more comfortable going to the VA.”
“We need to treat these guys well,” Jim Hall said.