As nation prepares to honor veterans, former service members recall sacrifice, trauma at town halls
MARBLEHEAD — Veterans gathered at historic Abbot Hall Saturday morning to reflect on their military service, its repercussions across their lives, and the values they fought to defend — ideals that some said the nation appears to have abandoned in these fractious times.
The fourth annual Veterans Town Hall hosted by US Congressman Seth Moulton, which grew out of an idea from the writer Sebastian Junger, a Belmont native, drew about 200 former service members, their families, and supporters.
The forum is among a growing number of such events held around the country in honor of Veterans Day, including a Saturday afternoon gathering at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Moulton, a former Marine platoon commander who served four tours of duty in Iraq, shared the story of a lance corporal who was shot through the neck mere feet away while Moulton paused for a brief rest and could not see his comrade.
By the time Moulton found the man, he was dead.
“One of the hardest parts of seeing a fellow Marine die in that circumstance was knowing that he spent his last few moments alone,” the Salem Democrat said, adding moments later, “I think I’ve done OK with the guilt and regret . . . but it’s something that will always be a part of my life.”
Other veterans, who ranged in age from 20s to 70s, spoke of bravery, heroism, and self-sacrifice, of the ways life in uniform brings together people of disparate backgrounds and makes them not only peers but members of an extended family. But they also spoke of the wounds they still carry, and of fellow service members who survived the deadliest combat only to return home and take their own lives.
Andrea Gayle-Bennett, a physician assistant who was the first African-American woman promoted to colonel in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and who served in Iraq, spoke of balancing duties as both a warrior and a healer.
“I do have the responsibility of being a soldier, and all that that entails, but I also have the responsibility of taking care of the sick,” she said. “And with that, I took on . . . all the anxiety, all the fear, all the trauma of everyone else.”
At the veterans’ town hall in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke of his battle with alcohol addiction and the help he received from others as he worked to get sober.
Like some veterans after they serve, Walsh said, he felt “helpless,” and he needed assistance. He encouraged anyone in the room of about 50 people to reach out for help, too, if they need it.
“You fought for this country. We owe it to you to help you,” Walsh said near the end of the three-hour town hall.
Earlier at Faneuil Hall, Jack Robinson, a Navy veteran who served for 24 years, including the Vietnam War, shared his appreciation for the gratitude of the community.
“Nowadays, if I just wear a Navy veteran T-shirt, people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” he said, adding later, “You don’t know what that does for a veteran. That really is a great thing.”
In Marblehead, though, some speakers questioned whether Americans still believe in the ideals they had fought for, and for which so many of their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines lost their lives.
Albert Yee, a Vietnam veteran from California whose parents were Chinese immigrants, said he faced no racial discrimination from his fellow Marines — an experience he contrasted with President Trump’s policies and the current antipathy toward immigrants among some Americans.
“There’s a half-million veterans who are immigrants and noncitizens living in the United States now,” Yee said. “They gave their life and their sacrifices for this country. And for people to come out and be so derogatory and so racist is totally unfair.”
Elvis Matos, an ammunition specialist who was born in Salem, grew up in Lynn, and left the Army just two months ago, said the US military is successful because service members rely on each other, regardless of their ethnicity, faith, or any other factor that might separate them.
Matos, who wore a T-shirt reading “Future President,” said he felt he had come home from Afghanistan to “a country that began to throw away its own values.”
He is frustrated, he said, to see his fellow Americans fighting “over small things like the color of your skin, where I come from, how I speak, who I talk to. . . . We’re not different. The same blood runs through my veins as it does in every one of you.”