My favorite working moment of 2011 came back in late May when The Military Page asked area veterans to show up for photo shoots in Pawtucket and Woonsocket.
I had my doubts about how many vets would attend, figuring they had many other things to do on a sunny Saturday in May, but those doubts vanished when the vets came walking up to the assigned meeting place, many of them with their wives or children, sometimes even grandchildren, mingling with other veterans and clearly enjoying the chance to have their picture taken with fellow veterans.
The group photos appeared on the cover of a special Memorial Day section published by both The Times and The Call.
We used separate photos for each newspaper. One showed the group gathered around the Korean War Memorial at the entrance to Slater Park in Pawtucket. The second photo was taken at a memorial on Main Street in Woonsocket, just down the street from the Call’s office.
The photo gathering turned into such a great event that we are going to do it again on Saturday, Nov. 5, at The Monastery in Cumberland, located on Diamond Hill Road. The photo session will begin at 11 a.m. That’s a day later than previous mentioned on the Military Page. We had to change the date when a reader sent me an email saying a lot of veterans work on Fridays!
The Military Page has been an interesting challenge for me ever since we started it back on Jan. 31. The original format involved reporting the stories of local veterans who had participated in World War II and the wars that followed for the United States over the final 50 years of the 20th Century.
It seemed like the best stories came from WW II veterans, some of whom were only now, in their old age, able to speak about their experiences. Pawtucket’s Roland Carroll, who was wounded at Iwo Jima, had suppressed memories of the war for more than 50 years, until a minor stroke suffered a few years ago triggered a willingness to speak to his family and eventually to me for a story.
At first, it was easy to find these stories. Retired Pawtucket policeman Jimmy Brennan spoke of his part in the Bataan Death March and becoming a Prisoner of War. Jimmy was 92 years old and told me his memory of last week was a little shaky but he could remember World War II very clearly. He died a few months later, having told his story one last time for the local newspaper. I always felt good that we met in time to hear his story.
East Providence’s Anthony Stanis told of his work as an Army soldier in intelligence and reconnaissance during World War II. Stanis recalled the death of famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was killed by a sniper while traveling with Stanis’s unit in the Pacific off the coast of Okinawa on April 18, 1945.
Stanis thought that Pyle’s wearing a clean uniform made him an easy target for snipers that day, and blamed his commanding officer for letting Ernie go out on their mission.
I spoke to Woonsocket’s Edouard Cournoyer, now 95, an Army career soldier who came home to live out his years with son George Fontaine. Eddie served as a ham radio operator in Africa in the early 1960s, among other chores in a 40-year career.
Army nurse Gloria Vignone spoke of serving in Iraq and how it changed her life.
“I absolutely see life with a different perspective now,” she admitted. “It is all very sobering, to realize what our soldiers are going through. My own personal feeling is I think everyone in our country should do some sort of community service, to give back the way our soldiers do.”
The Franklin, Ma. native continues to help people through her work at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro.
There were many other stories we told over the first half of 2011 on the Military Page. Mostly, though, we published pictures of area veterans that showed them as young men and women, serving their country. Those photos often elicited deep emotions from the surviving family members who brought them in. A widow from Woonsocket brought in a picture of her brother who had been killed during World War II. She wouldn’t let the photo out of her sight, choosing to wait until it was scanned into our computers, and taking it home with her.
The Military Page also stumbled upon the story of Woonsocket’s Ronnie Brissette, who was killed in Vietnam in 1966. His older brother Roger sent in the photo and spoke emotionally about losing his brother.
Sen. Jack Reed’s office is investigating Brissette’s case to see if the young infantryman, who saved a buddy’s life by shielding him from a grenade,, deserves more than just the Purple Heart his family received posthumously.
“I think about Ronnie every day,” Roger, now 72, said at the time.
His sister, Vivian, had a thoughtful answer, as well: “I guess that I would add only that the pain of the loss hasn’t gone away,” Vivian said. “Not one bit ... that I haven’t really ever come to terms with it. I’m still angry on top of sad.”
The stories began to appear less frequently over the past few months. Even the photos have started to trickle down to one or two a week. Maybe we have exhausted the supply of stories and photos from area veterans. After all, there are only so many veterans in the Blackstone Valley, and we’ve printed close to 500 photos this year.
That’s why it will be fun to get our veterans together again next month, just to give them a chance to meet somewhere besides the local VFW post. They all have great stories to tell of their military experience. Many of them really don’t want to talk about it, especially the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s only natural.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that we all suppress our military stories. And then when you get older, and the clock is ticking down on your life, you suddenly realize how important a few years in service of your country have become.
Strange how that works.