At age 87, Tony Mangini can look back at a life well-lived. It’s been shaped by family, community, and service. He’s a proud man from humble beginnings whose sunny disposition and wisecracking ways have endeared him to many. But there’s something that gnaws at him: Am I a veteran?
What first triggered Mangini’s unease was the construction of a veterans memorial on the Waltham Common a dozen years ago. There are now more than 2,000 red bricks arranged in a tight circular formation, chiseled with the names of veterans and their branches of service. Mangini would like his brick — his name — to be among them.
Back in 1951, after the outbreak of the Korean War, Mangini and two pals from Waltham volunteered for the Navy Reserve at the Fargo Building in Boston. He raised his right hand and swore his oath. It was a four-year commitment, requiring two weeks at sea every summer and weekly classroom sessions.
Enlistment meant Mangini could be called up to active duty at any time. He trained in naval security, but the need for his particular skills never arose and the call to active service never came. Married with children, Mangini didn’t complain. His two buddies from Waltham? They got called and shipped out on active duty.
When he fulfilled his four-year obligation, Mangini signed up for another four-year hitch. Same deal: Two weeks away from home in the summer, weekly classroom commitments, and the constant possibility of being suddenly pulled out of civilian life and stationed anywhere in the world.
So is he a veteran?
I wound up sitting in Mangini’s living room as he spoke with aching candor of his longing for veteran status. For once, the smile faded and the jokes stopped.
“I just want to proudly say I am a veteran,” he said. “Sometimes, like at church, all the veterans are asked to stand, and I don’t know whether to stand.”
The eighth (and youngest) child of parents who emigrated from Italy, Mangini grew up during the Depression and watched as his three older brothers trooped off to active military service during World War II. He looked up to his brothers, but by the time he was old enough to follow them into the service, the war had ended.
After high school, Mangini was hired by Raytheon. At the time, the big Massachusetts-based defense contractor was rapidly expanding to produce the kinds of missiles that became a hallmark of the Cold War. He was steadily promoted and stayed with the company 40 years. (One of his sons followed in his footsteps at Raytheon.)
Along the way, Mangini picked up an accounting degree by going to Boston College at night for 12 years. “I was determined to get that degree no matter what,” he said.
Mangini also became active at his church, in city affairs, and in local business, and charitable circles.
Some in Mangini’s family consider his campaign for veteran status quixotic. But a guy who spent a dozen years going to night classes isn’t easily dissuaded.
“I’ve carried this thing for a long time,” he said. “I may be chasing rainbows, but I think it’s a worthy cause.”
Mangini said he is not looking for veterans benefits. He worked more than 20 years as a business consultant after leaving Raytheon. He lives comfortably in retirement, playing golf regularly at a nice country club (where he once served as president).
I checked with veterans affairs specialists in several cities, with Senator Ed Markey’s office, and with the American Legion. The law is pretty clear that Mangini does not qualify. Reservists need at least 180 days of continuous active service during peacetime (training does not count) or 90 days during wartime. Mangini had no active service.
Michael Russo, the Waltham director of veterans affairs, told me that if it were up to him, Mangini would get his brick, inscribed with his name and “USNR,” for United States Navy Reserve, at the memorial on the common.
But the rules don’t allow it.
And loosening the definition of veteran would devalue its status, in the eyes of some.
“I took four years out of my life, full-time, to be on active duty,” said George Nicholson, an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Vietnam. “Reservists didn’t. It’s not the same thing. It’s not comparable.”
Nicholson, now director of veterans affairs for the city of Quincy, said he thanks Mangini for his service. “But a reservist is not a veteran,” he said.
There’s also something else lurking in the background, unspoken. During the Vietnam War, some young men joined the reserves or the National Guard to avoid the draft. Some used political connections to do it. There are still bad feelings in some quarters, though not toward reservists of an earlier era like Mangini.
But laws do change. Last year, President Obama signed into law a bill that extends veteran status to National Guard members with 20 years of service, even if they did not have active service. (It did not add any new benefits because guard members with 20 years of service already qualified for a pension).
Merchant marines who served during World War II got veteran status many years later after a lengthy lobbying effort in acknowledgment of the peril they faced from torpedoes while ferrying men and material into combat.
Mangini is convinced that his only course is to pursue a law that would further expand the definition of veteran.
One of Markey’s aides told me they’re working on it. “Our nation is grateful for his service, and it’s important that he feels recognized for his dedication to our country,” the aide said.
Billy R. Johnson, national membership director of the American Legion, said expanding the definition of veteran is often discussed, but has never received enough support to come to a vote by the nation’s largest veterans’ organization. He said Mangini can certainly call himself a veteran.
“We are proud of anyone who served in uniform because it takes a special breed to do that,” he said. “We are no less proud of reservists than any other veterans.”
So I say to Tony Mangini: Next time someone asks veterans to stand up, you rise proudly.Sean P. Murphy can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@spmurphy-boston.