Veterans Day 2016
Veterans Day is today; a punctuation mark at the end of a very tumultuous week in America, the country for whom so many gave their lives and their years to the defense of it — for all of us back home. This week the Sand Paper spoke to just a few Fort Myers Beach area veterans, asking them to share their thoughts on their service and Veterans Day.
It is a day that morphed from Armistice Day, a day of remembrance for those lost in World War I, into Veterans Day, a day to pay homage to all those who fought in all wars on behalf of their fellow countrymen and women.
Right here on Fort Myers Beach, we have among us many veterans and their families. Years ago, the Sand Paper ran a story about Huggy Ellyatt, a WWII vet from Canada who fought for America. Huggy and his wife Mary Lou have lived here for many years now, and during this time, Huggy single-handedly made sure those island businesses that fly the American flag raised the standard in good shape. If he found a tattered flag flying, he would bring a replacement. A true patriot by choice rather than by birth. Thank you for your service Huggy.
Another veteran of WWII, Milton Charles “Chuck” Golden and his wife Margery have lived on the south end of the island for twenty years, in the same house they bought in 1996. Born and raised in Baltimore, Chuck turned 17 and Uncle Sam wanted him. “When it came time for the draft, I volunteered for the Navy. I did it so that I wouldn’t be drafted into the Army. I did not want to fight. I was the opposite of gung-ho.” Wife Marjory gives her husband a loving pat on the shoulder and quietly says to him, “You’re a passive person.”
He served two years stateside as a U.S. Navy Specialist (I) 3 at the Navy Bureau of Personnel in Washington, D.C., doing administrative support work for several lieutenants. He received technical training from IBM, learning programming, making Chuck one of the original ‘techies.’ “The training I received in the Navy was what my livelihood became.”
Chuck did not want to see combat, but he was a patriot, and felt he needed to do his part. He has no regrets about his two years of service, or the fact that he did not have to experience the special hell of combat. Asked if he would sign up for service in today’s world, if he were 17 right now, he quickly answered, “No.” But he deeply appreciates those who have and still are serving, and Veterans Day, he says, “Gives us the opportunity to reflect and remember them.”
Walter “Buster” Rouse and wife Shirley grew up in the same town of High Point, North Carolina. At one point, his family moved to Virginia, and Walter’s dad was a security officer at the base. “I grew up around the military.” When he was old enough, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and was an aircraft mechanic in the U.S. Air Force in two wars, with his ‘boots on the ground’ in South Korea, and later, in Vietnam.
“I was a crew chief, and I had an airplane that I took care of,” Walter remembers. “The Air Force didn’t go into combat, except for the pilots.” In Vietnam, Walter saw a lot of guys, some Air Force, some Navy, come through the base, on their way to combat, or on their way back. “We did all our inspections of the planes at night, and every now and then you’d see a flare go up, and then you’d hear the ‘pop pop pop’ of the guns.”
When he returned from Korea after that stint, and then again when he came back stateside from Vietnam, Walter recalls the cold reception he and his fellow servicemen received. After Vietnam was the worst. “They (the people back home) were rude, crude and unacceptable,” recalls Shirley, who also shared how difficult life was for the wives and children of these unsung heroes. “They were rude to the families, too. We (wives and families of servicemen fighting in Vietnam) wouldn’t even mention where our husbands and sons were serving,” to avoid the negative responses. Unlike now, Vietnam vets did not even find a warm welcome in the VFW back then. There were some support groups, very few and far between, mostly supported by the families and friends of Vietnam War veterans. “On the bases, there were some things for us. But in town, the people hated the vets and said they never should have gone.”
After his stints were done and he retired from the Air Force, Walter – a pilot himself – flew in the private sector, and ended up teaching flying and aviation mechanics at a local community college. “I had a ball teaching.”
Looking at the world as it is today, if he could enlist now, Walter says he would do it all over again. “It’s different now. If I am out, and I have my Air Force hat on or something, people buy me lunch, or they’ll shake my hand and thank me for my service.” In spite of the climate of the country during his years of service, Walter said he was proud to have served and “I would be happy to do it again.” What about Veterans Day? “It’s just another day.”
Eddy Bellefeuille (pronounced Bellafay) and his wife April both grew up in a small town in Central Massachusetts, though they now live on Fort Myers Beach. There are many neighbors who call him “The Mayor” of their street. Eddy is the Commander of the Vietnam Brotherhood, a Florida-only group that offers friendship and raises money for other groups serving various needs of Vietnam veterans and their families.
Eddy signed up for a six-year stint in the U.S. Navy in 1963. An electrician by trade, he was in Navy Mobile Construction Battalion (NMBC) 12, and at first, found himself in Antarctica, a story about which ran in the Sand Paper a few years ago. After Antarctica, Eddy came home to Massachusetts, bought a home and his young wife April got pregnant. But a hammer fell that year, 1968, and with one year left of his military obligation, Eddy was recalled and sent off to Vietnam with his battalion, abruptly uprooted from his wife and two-week old daughter. “I tried to get it changed, but in the end, I had to go.”
While on the outskirts of Da Nang, Eddy and his fellow ‘Seabees’ built many massive warehouses to store supplies for the troops in country. “There was a guarded perimeter around our work areas, and spotlights at night that were so bright you could see the individual blades of grass.” In other words, he and his buddies felt protected, and fortunately, none of them fell in combat. “I carried a rifle and a gun, but I never had to shoot anyone,” Eddy says, “but I would have if I had to. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.”
On their days off, rather than having a well-deserved rest, Eddy and every one of his fellow ‘Bees would voluntarily build or repair orphanages (or often, have to remove dead babies, as there were far more children than the nuns could really care for), and put a jug band together and play for the combat victims in the hospital. In the NMBC 12 Cruise Book, similar to a high school yearbook, with portraits of the officers, candid shots of the guys, and a log of events during their year in Vietnam, there is a picture of the jug band in a hospital ward full of combat-wounded men. As Eddy talks about those hospital visits, his voice thickens as he points out the guys in the background with limbs missing, or those who could not even raise themselves up in their beds. Vietnam is a beautiful country, Eddy says, but it was a horror show for the guys with boots on the ground.
When his one-year tour of duty ‘in country’ was up, his obligation to the Navy also had been fulfilled. Eddy came home to April and his daughter, a toddler who had been a newborn when he had left. He felt the derision of the people back home, who had been against the Vietnam War and America’s involvement in it. They took their dissatisfaction with the government out on the very men who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the people’s right to dissension. “I also had a new house, a young wife, a little girl, and no job. I won’t lie, with everything going on at that time, the first two or three years back were rough.” They got through. They have a good life.
Eddy, who is the epitome of volunteerism and neighborliness (thus the affectionate moniker “Mayor”) bestowed upon him by those who know him, always has a smile and encouraging word or a helping hand at the ready. But until a few years ago, he was reluctant to show the pain and sadness lurking underneath. The memories attached to his days in Vietnam and those years after he returned held many hard-to-bear feelings, shared by most every veteran of every conflict. [This issue was finally brought to light after veterans of the Mideast wars and conflicts returned home, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was acknowledged]. When Eddy agrees to talk about those things now, his voice thickens with emotion and his eyes glisten with barely held-back tears. “Unless you experienced it, it’s impossible to really understand.” He says all the volunteering he does, helping fellow Vietnam veterans and their families, and helping his neighbors and friends, is his “remedy.”
The Vietnam War vets have come a long way since then. Eddy relates that Florida has the highest number of Vietnam veterans living here than any other state, and that Southwest Florida is the very best place to be if you are a Vietnam veteran. He volunteers at the new V.A. Hospital in Cape Coral, which he says is “a fantastic place – really beautiful. And the staff there is excellent.” With the Vietnam Brotherhood, the V.A. Hospital, and the many veterans support groups that are active in this area, Eddy thinks a Vietnam veteran has more opportunities to find help and solace here than in most any other part of the country. “If you have any insignia on, people come up to you and thank you for your service, they pick up your tab. It happens all the time here.” He says a friend and his wife, who recently moved to Florida from another state, told Eddy they can’t believe how well veterans are treated here. Eddy, through his dedication and volunteerism, has been a big part of raising that awareness.
Veterans Day has much meaning for Eddy. His emotions bubble up again, but he rides them out quietly. “It means a lot to me,” the truth of that written all over his face. But, Eddy recovers quickly, then talks enthusiastically about the Veterans Day Parade in Cape Coral tomorrow. “Our group (Vietnam Brotherhood) is in it,” he says with pride. Would he do it again? Would he enlist today if he could? “Absolutely.”
Today is Veterans Day. To Eddy, Walter, Chuck, Huggy and all veterans, we humbly thank you for your sacrifice and service.