When George Casey Jr. was growing up, in Allston, on Army bases across the US, Germany, and Japan, and on the campuses of BC High and Georgetown, everybody knew him as the general’s son.
It was not a bad thing, but in those days, in the middle of the Vietnam War, it was a complicated thing.
No one likes to live in their father’s shadow, and George Casey Sr. cast a long and impressive one. He received a Silver Star in Korea, for his valor on Heartbreak Ridge. He served three tours in Vietnam, receiving more medals than could fit on his uniform. He was a soldier’s soldier, and eventually a general’s general.
Like most kids, George Casey Jr. tried to walk sideways, to step out of that shadow.
His father wanted him to go to West Point, so he made half-hearted attempts to get into the service academies. Instead, he ended up where he wanted to go: Georgetown University.
He enlisted in ROTC, intending to have a short career in the Army, to please his father as much as anything, but his ambition was to be a lawyer. He loved the law, its potential to right wrongs and level playing fields and make the Constitution that soldiers fought and died for a living, breathing document.
Then, on July 7, 1970, with his Georgetown graduation parties still ringing in his ears, everything changed: His father and six others were killed when their helicopter went down in Cambodia. Major General George Casey Sr. had been on his way to visit soldiers who had been wounded in a battle in Vietnam.
Like George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who threw away his dream of traveling the world when his family needed him, George Casey Jr. threw away his dream of becoming a lawyer.
“If he had lived, I might not have stayed in the Army,” George Casey told me. “I just didn’t want to be the general’s son. I wanted to go to law school.”
But then, the more he learned about his dad, about the way his father carried himself as a soldier and a man, he decided he did, in fact, want to be the general’s son. But, again, it was complicated.
“As I progressed through the Army, I looked at my bosses through the idealistic lens of what people told me about my father,” General Casey told me. “When you are killed in action, you are larger than life. The leader presented to me was flawless, and none of the others measured up. It wasn’t until I was a colonel that I realized no one is that good.”
It was an enormous relief to realize that his father was not an idealized symbol of perfection but a real person with flaws like everyone else. But it also triggered a longing.
“One of my regrets is not knowing my dad as a man, because I was just 21 when he died,” he said.
The son eventually outranked his father, rising to become the head of the Army, the service’s 36th chief of staff. He held that post from 2007 to 2011, when the Army was engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the middle of one of those wars, when he was the commanding general of US forces in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, General Casey was sitting in his office in Baghdad when an earnest young officer appeared. His name was Brian Golden, and when he’s not deployed with his Army unit, he is director of the Boston Planning & Development Agency. Golden was holding an old photograph of the Casey homestead on Franklin Street in Allston.
Golden grew up near the Caseys and knew the family history, that the general’s grandfather was Dr. John Casey, chief of medical services at St. Elizabeth’s, and if you were born at St. E’s back in the day, chances are Doc Casey brought you into this world. Doc Casey never charged the local priests and nuns for his medical services, as long as they agreed to pray for his five sons, all in harm’s way during World War II.
To Golden, the Caseys epitomized selfless public service, and he believed at least someone in the family should be recognized.
Golden had an idea, and General Casey’s old BC High and Georgetown classmate, Judge Chris Muse, had encouraged him to run it by General Casey: Why not create a memorial to General Casey’s father, the elder General Casey?
Thus, in a small office in war-torn Iraq, began an odyssey of more than a decade that ended Wednesday afternoon in a park next to Harvard Stadium named for a Marine from Allston, William Smith, who was killed in World War I.
Like that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when all of George Bailey’s friends rush into his living room with donations, all of George Casey’s friends chipped in: With Mayor Marty Walsh’s blessing and encouragement, Golden got his VFW and his city agency behind the effort and began the long, elaborate approval process; Tom Keady from Boston College got BC to kick in $100,000 for a bronze sculpture by the great Pablo Eduardo, who created the sculpture of Mayor Kevin White at Faneuil Hall and the Marathon Memorial in Copley Square.
And then there was Harvard.
George Casey Sr. attended Harvard for one year before transferring to West Point.
After he became Army chief of staff in 2007, General George Casey Jr. asked Harvard president Drew Faust to lift the ban on ROTC on campus, a prohibition that went back to the Vietnam War protests. He spoke of all those names of Harvard men on the walls of Memorial Church, noted that only West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis had produced more Medal of Honor recipients than Harvard. It was a civil discussion, but Faust wouldn’t budge. She said she couldn’t let ROTC back on campus until the military stopped banning LGBTQ people from service.
On the day “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2012, Drew Faust called George Casey Jr. to tell him there was an ROTC office at Harvard waiting and ready.
In recent years, the city of Boston and Harvard have spent more than $6 million to renovate Smith Field, including a refit of the amphitheater named for Major General George W. Casey Sr.
On Wednesday, with Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Walsh, Brian Golden, Tom Keady, and a host of dignitaries and the great people of Allston looking on, they unveiled something just 400 yards from the house where George W. Casey Sr. grew up, a memorial that, like old soldiers, will never die.
The general’s son looked to the heavens and smiled.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the location of a battle in which soldiers were wounded.