Three Wars, Three Vets Remember
Editors' Note: This was originally published in May 2007, in Main Street, a bi-weekly newspaper from Cambridge, New York. It was written by David Doonan, gp.org web manager.
As we applaud our Veterans marching past in Memorial Day parades, it's all to easy to see them as anonymous soldiers, not as individuals. Veterans share a common devotion to duty and patriotism in their desire to serve our country, but they all bring their own unique history and upbringing with them. In the following article we profile three local Veterans who candidly discuss their experiences in the military and their motivations in enlisting.
Walter Hooke of Cambridge, a WW II Veteran, spent almost twenty years of his retirement voluntarily lobbying in Washington to get VA benefits for victims of radiation sickness. Dave LeCarte, a Hudson Falls native and Vietnam War era Veteran, describes himself as being victimized by his father's Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before enlisting himself. Brian Gillis of Bald Mountain, spent a number of years in the 1970's and 1980's in the National Guard and the Army, followed by a long career in the civilian sector before re-enlisting shortly after September 11.
Let their stories speak for all Veterans this Memorial Day.
Walter Hooke of Cambridge, was 29 years old, living and working in New York City, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Because of his age and the care he was providing for his elderly mother, he was draft exempt. But in Walter's mind, there never was any doubt that he would enlist and fight. Over the course of a few months he stopped spending money on himself, saving as much as possible. When he felt that enough was put aside to cover his mom's rent and bills for six months, Walter enlisted. His employer, after listening to Walter explain why he needed to enlist, told him to see his secretary before leaving work. Waiting for Walter was a check that covered his mother's rent for a full year.
By August 1943, Walter had completed his Marine Corp training at Camp Lejune and was transferred to Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Most of his time in the Marines was spent in training (including Officer's School) or in supplies. The one campaign he took part in was the Marshall Islands.
"After the Marshall Islands, because I was a little older and I guess they thought I wouldn't steal, I had the job of packing up the personal belongings of the guys that were killed on the Marshall Islands. I never got over that. You know their wallets and pictures and dog tags. One of them I always remember. We made a little box, it's so much different from what's going on in Washington now. Harry Hopkins was Roosevelts' number two person. His son could have been an officer, he was gung-ho so he wanted to be an enlisted man. He was one of those killed. I remember making up this little box and sending it to the White House, addressed to Harry Hopkins, with his kids' wallet and dog tag, that was about it, just a couple of little things. It's so different from this war (Iraq), Roosevelt's sons were in the war, all the people involved (in the White House) had someone in the war. Here you got an administration with nobody in the war . . . it's all conversation with them.
When the end of the war came, Walter was an S4 officer, in charge of transportation and housing for his Division as they left Saipan to take up occupation duties in Japan, where he was based for a time in Nagasaki, the site of the second atomic bombing. By January 1946 Walter was discharged and returned to civilian life.
As the years went by, one fellow soldier after another from his last unit came down with cancer and died. Their deaths became a topic of concern at reunions, with worry and concern that the cancers were caused by the time the Division spent in and around Nagasaki. Walter ended up spending 20 years of his life, most of it after his civilian retirement, working to gain VA benefits for victims of radiation poisoning.
Walter is a member of two groups, The National Association of Atomic Veterans, whose membership is limited to Veterans; and the National Association of Radiation Survivors, which is open to anyone exposed to radiation including military testing in the Pacific and the Southwest, including dependents of those exposed. It took years of lobbying by Walter and many others, including a core group of widows, before Congress acted. Walter remembers one woman who testified before Congress. Her daughter sat beside her with arms crossed over her chest the entire time, vividly illustrating how she had been born without hands.
Finally, on May 20, 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the "Radiation-Exposed Veterans Compensation Act of 1988". Shortly afterwards, Senator Frank Murkowski, D-AK, sent Walter a copy of the bill along with a note thanking him for his "support, perseverance and faith".
"As far as Memorial Day is concerned, I think all the paper (Main Street) can do is express concern about all the kids over there now, the number that have been wounded, permanently wounded".
Within days of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Brian Gillis knew his country needed him and decided to re-enlist despite the fact that he was forty one. Brian had previously served in the National Guard and the Army from 1978 to 1988 and was stationed in Texas and Germany. His first attempts to re-enlist in the Army were denied due to a combination of his age and physical condition. But a chance encounter one day on the job gave Brian the opportunity he was looking for.
As a corrections officer in the Washington County Sheriff's office, Brian struck up a conversation one day with someone who was applying for a gun permit. That someone turned out to be Major General Joseph Taluto of the New York National Guard. Everything fell into place shortly afterwards.
Brian's first six months back in the military was spent stateside. Once his unit received orders for Iraq, he re-enlisted for an additional year so he could accompany them. Upon returning from Iraq, Brian re-enlisted for six more years.
In Iraq, his unit, the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, was assigned to a FOB (Forward Operating Base) 35 miles north of Baghdad. It was a former ammunition depot for the Iraqi Army. After the fall of Iraq, the depot was looted by insurgents and the stolen munitions buried in the fields surrounding the base perimeter. "When we got there, there was unexploded ordinance everywhere . . . at night, they would come in with trucks . . . digging the stuff up, firing at us, or shoot rockets or mortars."
Responsible for vehicle maintenance, Brian was on the road every day, picking up spare parts, worried about being blindsided by IED's (improvised explosive device). Everyone at a FOB did their normal job assignments, but because each FOB was responsible for their own security, " . . . everyone switched a duty. Four nights a week I might be on OP Guard (Observation Post) up on our bunker, or OP Guard out on the back 40, which was really screwed up because you could be cut off out there, just like that". When IED's damaged or destroyed a vehicle, Brian and his unit would have to drive out and retrieve it.
He spoke at length about the dangers of IED's and of the constantly changing tactics from both the insurgents and the US Military. His unit arrived with what Brian called "hillbilly armor" and it was sometime before their vehicles received "uparmor". Once they did, however, the insurgents began replacing the crude IED's with ones built using 155 mm howitzer shells, making them far more explosive and dangerous. When a IED, or a suspected IED was spotted, the initial procedure was for the vehicle that spotted it to throw out a flare, travel 150 yards and stop. All trailing vehicles would stop at least 150 yards behind the flare. It didn't take long for the insurgents to begin planting IED's in rows of three, 150 yards apart.
Besides having to deal with never knowing when or who was going to attack you, dealing with the weather was the other major source of stress. "The temperature topped out at 145 degrees where we were. Up on the observation post, you had to wear your helmet, you had to wear your body armor, and you had to wear a long sleeve shirt". The long sleeve shirt was to prevent sun burn and was dipped in a solution to ward off mosquitoes and other bugs. "You're up there for an eight hour shift and when you come down . . . you're soaking wet, right down to your boots. All you would want to do is get a shower and three, four hours sleep, then get back up the next day and start all over again".
When asked if there was a difference in how he celebrated Memorial Day before and after his service in Iraq, Brian said of course there was, then spoke at length about the friends lost and maimed in battle and of the close friendships of those he's served with.
Although troubled by how many soldiers have been lost or wounded in Iraq, Brian is fully prepared to return to Iraq should he be ordered to. "I'll do whatever my President tells me to do".
"Some of the people I work with respect me for being in Iraq. If you want to respect someone, respect those that served in World War II. They shipped out not knowing how many years it would be before they would be coming home again. A letter might take 10 months to reach them. I was away from my family for a year, but I got to return home for two weeks. I can't imagine not talking to or hearing from anyone for three years. I'd go crazy.
"It was tough for us but we were only maintenance, we were a lot of time on the FOB, but look at the guys we were supporting. They were infantry soldiers that were pounding the streets . . . that was their mission, going to town every day so look what they had to face . . . they did it every single day for eight, ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day."
In 1972, Dave LeCarte, a graduate of Hudson Falls High School, had little idea of what he wanted to do with his life. The Vietnam War was still raging, but his draft number was 362; he knew he would never have to ship out to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
"I had no direction after high school, then I saw a picture of a tank in a TV Guide. That's what drew me into the Army, the picture in the TV Guide. I said 'I want to ride that tank' . . .let's try the army, never been away from home in my whole life . . . (I was) just a scared little kid. Never even had a drink. Went to Fort Knox the first night and I said 'what the hell am I doing here' . . . I made the worst mistake of my life. There were guys in the barracks crying that night 'mommy'".
"After I got out I went to college. I wish now I had did it in reverse; went to college and then joined the military".
After six months of basic and advanced training, Dave was assigned to a unit in Europe, which is where his substance abuse problems started. His forty two months in Germany were spent on two bases where there was a lot of stability, even a day-to-day routine to his life which certainly was not what draftees experienced. While conditions in Germany could in no way be compared to those in Vietnam, American soldiers based in Europe were under tight security restrictions due to the terrorist activities of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy. Soldiers were not allowed off-base by themselves and were 'advised' to avoid popular public places. As a result, Dave's time in Germany was spent in a closed environment, working basically nine to five in the military, with virtually no interaction with the local Germans. Peer pressure, combined with boredom and the social isolation, is what he attributes to his abuse problems. When asked if his experience was typical of those he served with, Dave stated that half of his buddies abused drugs and alcohol.
No one enters the military with a blank slate; their past life follows behind, sometimes like a shadow, other times like a burden. In Dave's case, that past included growing up with a father who suffered from, but was never treated for, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "I had post-traumatic before I went the service, my dad had post-traumatic from World War Two. My father was a powder keg and you never talked to him about anything . . . He alienated my whole family, he was so mean my brothers and sisters didn't want to have anything to do with him". By the time his father died, Dave was the only family member still in touch with his dad.
It wasn't until his father's death that Dave finally learned what his father went through during World War II. He was on a landing ship, taking part in the invasion of a small island in the Pacific when the ship came under heavy fire just as the troops were landing. Dave's father was the only survivor. "He put all the bodies back on the boat. He was a hero, he just never talked about it. I have more respect for him now then I ever did when he was alive. No wonder he was PTSD. Come on, he was traumatized. He put all his dead buddies back on the boat".
After getting out of the military, Dave distanced himself from it and the local Veteran's organizations. After the invasion of Iraq, Dave joined the Saratoga Peace Alliance and helped form a Saratoga chapter of Veterans For Peace. "It's kind of like that band of brothers attitude. We were special back then (in the military) but I also feel that brotherhood with the people in the Saratoga Peace Alliance. That's my new band of brothers and sisters. I feel like my service now is more valuable in the peace movement than it ever was in the military. I tell younger guys that I'm active in Veterans for Peace so you won't have to go overseas and die for nothing".
When asked if he felt joining the military was a mistake, he hesitated and finally said "probably yes". Yet Dave spoke about how important his service in the Army was to his growth as an individual. He also attributes his military service as the main reason he was later able to reconcile with his father. "Would I do it again, I don't know. It gave me a bench I didn't have before. I learned how to speak up for myself".
"(That's why) I go to these anti-recruitment things. I'm trying to save the next group of kids from going in and maybe losing their lives, or lose their future".