Eva Alice Wagner is 103 years old, and she served as a nurse for the US Army in England during World War II. Ed Hamilton , 92, served in the Navy at the same time. Army veteran Christopher Morse served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Bob Notch just ended his Army service in 2016.
From Wagner, possibly the oldest living female veteran in Massachusetts, to Notch’s recent service, these veterans agreed on one thing — serving the military was as rewarding as it was challenging.
“I was happy to go abroad, because we were called upon to do it,” Wagner said at a town hall meeting of veterans and civilians at Faneuil Hall on Friday, the 242th birthday of the US Marine Corps.
The gathering, held in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company Museum, was organized by the non-profit Brighton Marine Health Center and Boston’s Veterans Services Department.
It was the first time Boston held a Veterans Town Hall, a national program started in 2015 by Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem, a Marine combat veteran, and best-selling author Sebastian Junger.
“It gives the veterans an outlet to share whatever story they want to share,” said Notch, the program development officer for Brighton Marine.
In just two years, the program has spread to 17 states, but this is the first town hall held in Boston.
“It’s really important for us to be educators to our non-veterans, because they don’t hear these stories,“ said Giselle Sterling, the commissioner of the city’s Veteran Services Department, and a Marine veteran. “They read [about] them in the history books, but to hear it from the actual person who was there is a little but more impactful.”
Morse, the army veteran who served in Iraq in the early 2000’s, recalled the struggles of returning to life at home after seeing combat overseas.
“While my service was brief, it left a mark on me,” he said. “It does not end when the uniform is hung up, when the boots are in the closet. The effects of military service echo.”
He remembered seeing great acts of courage and bravery among the suffering, but reminded the crowd the day was also one of celebration.
“Happy Birthday,” he said to Marines in attendance, before joking, “Even though you’re not as good as the Army.”
Hamilton, who served in the Navy during World War II from 1942 to 1946, drew laughter with tales of mischief he and his fellow sailors got into on their ships.
He commissioned a ship at the Charlestown Navy Yard, he said, and recalled returning there from Cuba as a fleet from overseas was sailing away.
“This cruiser had left an ice cream machine,” on the dock, he said. “When they came back, it was gone.”
The audience chuckled.
“Cause we had it!” he added, earning hearty laughs.
He also said on one occasion, his ship was attacked by nine kamikazes at once. Even during those frightening times, he said he enjoyed serving his country.
“It was a good life,” he said.
So why did he come home instead of reenlisting when he had the chance? Love.
“I had a girl waiting for me in South Boston,” he said. “When my time was up, I came home.”
Wagner, who treated British and American troops as a nurse in England from 1942 to 1945, recalled some harrowing moments.
“From time to time, the escort ships would sail around our boat,” when they were sailing to Europe, she said. “We could see that they were hunting for submarines. When it got dark, they dimmed the lights and we couldn’t go out on deck. Fortunately, our ship was never damaged.”
Wagner also recalled treating amputees.
“We had a patient who wrote a letter to his wife to tell her that he had lost his leg. He thought she wouldn’t want him when he came home, but she wrote to him and told him that she was just so happy that he was alive,” she said. “He cried, and so did I.”Alyssa Meyers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.