Thank you to all Veterans

Thu, 11/11/2021 - 4:45pm

My dad lost both his parents when he was 17 years old; they died a month apart. He had no immediate family and had no place to live. He was a junior at
Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, Rhode Island at the time, and he had a best friend at school named John Cunningham. John’s mother Molly, a sin-
gle mother of four children - her deceased husband was a doctor - opened her doors to my dad and took him into their family. He was very fortunate to
have a friend, who had his back in a very dark hour of his life.
I too, was once 17 at the very same high school, and cannot begin to even imagine how difficult this must’ve been for my father. There are certain things in life we can’t comprehend because they are profoundly experiential, and words just don’t work. However, I did get a sense of my dad’s loss when, according to my brother, he told my mother one day: “If Molly hadn’t taken me in with her family, I would’ve been on a freight train heading west.” He had no place to go as he approached age 18.

While growing up I observed a certain quietness that both of these men possessed; they also had a solid core of something that I didn’t quite understand. A few years after graduating from high school both men joined the service. Recently, my brother sent me a newspaper clipping from the Pawtucket Times, which has had a deep and emotional effect on me. Moreover, none of my siblings knew much about the guy we always called Uncle John.
My dad once told me that he and a few of his friends went to take some tests in Boston before they signed up for a branch of the service. He scored well in the math assessments and was encouraged to join the Navy and look into possible flight training, as it required math proficiency for navigation. My dad’s best friend—and adoptive brother John—joined the Army. I believe he might have been studying pre-med at Tufts during that time, and subsequently he became a combat medic in the European Theater. Moreover, after the war he went on to become an M.D. in his hometown as his dad had been. John never met his father because he passed before he was born. The reason that I’m having to piece this together is because these guys never really talked about the war or their life’s deal. My dad told me about the Pensacola Air Station, where pilot Ted Williams picked him up hitchhiking one day, and Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he spent time training to navigate; however, Dr. John J. Cunningham never mentioned the war, or even being a soldier for that matter. These were silent and private guys in many respects.
I do remember Uncle John giving me a pair of old wooden skis with bear-trap bindings for me to learn how to ski on when I was a kid. I look back on those skis now as artifacts from the war. He also gave me a bulky, white, Army-issue-green on the inside, ski parka with a fur-lined hood, which was a remnant from the war as well. Uncle John was just a quiet, and kind man who practiced medicine in Pawtucket after the war.

He was also very generous. He was one of those old-school doctors who did house calls and I remember carrying his doctor bag to see some of his elderly, house-bound patients. I can still remember his gentle manner with these ailing folks. Later in life he would adopt two children, which allowed them a better shot at their lives.

When my uncle died in his early sixties I remember there were many people paying their respects at his wake and funeral. I also remembered my dad was devastated by this loss. Years later we started hearing about his medals from cousins, who were also veterans of the Vietnam War era. Incidentally, I never remembered these guys ever mention their own military experiences either. My brother and I came to find out that my dad’s brother received the Bronze Star along with other medals. When my brother Pat sent me the above clipping, things started to make sense about this guy who had my dad’s back when they were young men. What struck me about the clipping was the age of John J. Cunningham and how young he looked.
At the entrance to Slater Park in Pawtucket there is a memorial called Pawtucket’s 21 Vietnam War Heroes. There are names of four particular young men on this wall whom I knew: 1st Lt. Thomas Gill, III, Army. I saw Tom in St. Teresa’s church with his mom when I was an altar boy as a young kid. Cpl. Robert Taylor, Army. Bobby was an exceptional and fearless athlete in junior and senior high school. Specialist Four Valentino LA Scola, Jr, Army. Val and I worked at a local supermarket, and he drove a 650 Triumph; he was always laughing and flirting with the girls. Specialist Four John Maloney, Army. Johnny, myself and a bunch of local high-school kids drank beer and in the woods three hundred yards from the memorial wall.

I see them as I remembered them in 1970 when they were approximately the same age as our Uncle John when he fought, and was injured at Alsace in France, where there were many American casualties and deaths. Again, what struck me with the clipping about my dad’s adoptive brother was how young he was which now brings the aforementioned men to a sharper and more evocative focus. War is a terrible thing, and this is why my dad and his brother never talked about it. They just wanted to come home.

The late Peter Bartis was a neighbor, and close friend from my youth who was a part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. This is the largest collection in the world of oral narratives from our country’s war veterans who now have a platform for their voices and stories. It’s a powerful
reminder of the personal sacrifice for the freedoms we have in our country. Finally, in addition to this acknowledgment of our nation’s veterans, I would like to also mention my appreciation for all of the people who work to help children who are in foster care, in helping them find a home.
Thank you, to all of our veterans.