The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2003
FEATURE
   
 

Honor In Massachusetts: Chapter 837

BY JIM BELSHAW


History weaves itself into the fabric of Chapter 837 in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Its name alone - VVA Chapter 837-Fitzgibbon-McMahon - encompasses the sweep of the Vietnam War, literally from beginning to end. Its motto, emblazoned on a patch on its Internet Web site, underscores the point: "Firebase First Last." Three of its life members - Thomas Hudner, Thomas Kelley, and Robert Foley - are vivid reminders of the sacrifice and valor seen in war. All are Medal of Honor recipients.

The chapter takes its name from two sons of Massachusetts - U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., of Stoneham, and U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Charles McMahon of nearby Woburn. They grew up three miles from one another. They died nearly twenty years apart.

Fitzgibbon was killed in Vietnam on June 8, 1956. He is officially recognized as the first American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War. McMahon died in Vietnam on April 29, 1975, twelve hours before the war officially ended, the last American to lose his life there.

The Medal of Honor citations for Foley, Kelley, and Hudner (who received his for action in the Korean War, but was given a life membership in Chapter 837) speak clearly to their courage under fire.

Robert F. Foley - Captain, U.S. Army, 25th Infantry Division: "At grave risk to himself he defied the enemy's murderous fire and helped the wounded [radio] operators to a position where they could receive medical care. As he moved forward again, one of his machine gun crews was wounded. Seizing the weapon, he charged forward, firing the machine gun, shouting orders and rallying his men. Captain Foley continued to advance, firing the machine gun until the wounded had been evacuated. Leading the renewed effort, he was blown off his feet and wounded by an enemy grenade. He refused medical aid and single-handedly destroyed three [enemy gun emplacements]."

Thomas G. Kelley - Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy, River Assault Division 152:
"Sustaining serious head wounds from [shrapnel], Lt. Cmdr. Kelley disregarded his severe injuries and attempted to continue directing the other boats. Although unable to move from the deck or to speak clearly into the radio, he succeeded in relaying his commands through one of his men until the enemy attack was silenced. His leadership, bold initiative, and resolute determination served to inspire his men and proved the impetus needed to carry out the mission after he was medically evacuated by helicopter."

Thomas J. Hudner, Jr. - Pilot, U.S. Navy, Chosin Reservoir: "For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attempting to rescue a squadron mate whose plane was forced down behind enemy lines. Fully aware of the extreme danger in landing on the rough mountainous terrain and the scant hope of escape or survival in sub-zero temperatures, he put his plane down in a wheels-up landing in the presence of enemy troops. With his bare hands, he packed the fuselage with snow to keep the flames away from the pilot and struggled to pull him free, an unavailing battle against time, cold and flames."

All three men spent careers in the military. Two worked directly in veterans affairs in
Massachusetts, while the third, Lt. Gen. Foley, is now the president of Marion Military Institute in Alabama.

Foley served on active duty for 37 years, holding many command positions, including
Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, and Commanding General, Fifth U.S. Army, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

He makes it plain that he has always enjoyed the company of soldiers.

"I like to spend a lot of time with soldiers," he said. "I do it all the time. I did it when I was a second lieutenant, and I did it when I was a lieutenant general. I like to spend time with NCOs. I'll never forget my first platoon sergeant. I was a brand new second lieutenant, and I asked him what I needed to do to be a good officer. He said I needed to do two things: accomplish the mission and take care of the troops. He spent a lot of time about that business of caring, and I never forgot it. Throughout my career I realized the importance of caring for your soldiers, being there with them, and being visible."

He left Vietnam in 1966. He received the Medal of Honor in 1968. He said he didn't know anything about the effort that would make him a recipient.

"It turned out that soldiers from my unit, privates and specialists, after I left were walking up to division headquarters with statements. I love my soldiers, and I have great admiration and trust for them. I proudly wear the award in recognition of the soldiers I served with, particularly on that day. It was a difficult day for me personally, a day of tough combat and we had soldiers rising to the occasion. All the soldiers I served with in Vietnam - I wear it in their honor. That's how I look at it."

Tom Kelley and Tom Hudner worked with veterans service programs in Massachusetts. Hudner served for three years as deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and then eight years as commissioner. Kelley succeeded him and is the current commissioner.

Both said the Massachusetts veterans programs and services are unmatched by any other state.  The foundation for these broad-based services was laid after World War II by state legislators, many of whom were veterans themselves.

"The array of programs began in 1946, and we keep adding to it," Kelley said. "When the fellas came back from World War II, a lot of them went into the legislature or became public officials of one kind or another. Somebody in their wisdom decided to complement the VA and other federal programs with state programs of their own and they've continued unabated. Veterans here do very well."

Kelley's predecessor, Hudner, said the programs, while generous, were not meant to be welfare, but helping hands to get veterans back on their feet.

"It wasn't a program where they could sit back and draw welfare checks, but to help people who had sacrificed in their time," Hudner said. "There's always a group that feels they saved the world, there's no appreciation, and you owe us everything. I feel very strongly that veterans are owed a lot, but mostly what they're owed is appreciation for the work they did and the risks they took. When I say gratitude toward veterans, I don't mean genuflecting every time they walk by."

Kelley said the state programs include $12 million to help veterans pay rent and buy food and the other necessities they and their families need. The state has two soldiers homes and spends about $24 million on them, in addition to what federal money is available.

"A couple of years ago, we put in an annuity for all veterans who are 100 percent service-connected disabled and all Gold Star mothers and fathers and wives," Kelley said. "Each one gets a $1,500 annuity annually. That's $11 million a year, which is a big chunk of money in this day and age. We work at tapping into the VA pension and compensation system to get as much money into the pockets of veterans as we can. Right now in Massachusetts we are getting almost $600 million a year directly to individual veterans."

Kelley and Hudner emphasized that the heart of the veterans programs lies in the network of 351 veterans agents located in almost every city and town in the state. Kelley, who oversees the network of agents and sets policy for their day-to-day operations, points out that Massachusetts is the only state with veterans agents in almost every city and town. Even those towns without agents are located near to municipalities that do.

"The agents are a font of information and knowledge for anyone who wants to know anything about veterans," Hudner said. "We like to feel that a good veterans agent will go out and beat the bushes for veterans who might need help but don't know they are eligible."

Frank Geary, president of Chapter 837 and a VA service rep, said the accessibility of Kelley and Hudner went a long way in helping him fulfill veterans' needs.

"It's nice to know that I can pick up the phone and talk to Tom Kelley or Tom Hudner,'' he said. ``They realize that other vets hold them in high esteem. They want to talk to them, and that's fine, but when you sit down and talk to them, you're talking to another vet. It's not like you're talking to a hero. Tom Hudner is very personable and a quiet man. Everyone who meets him loves him. He'd do anything for veterans. Tom Kelley is a quiet man, too. He's almost mysterious to me. He's very much down to business. He very much likes to sit down and talk to vets. No one best push against a vet or he'll come down on them. He is always for the vet."

Hudner and Kelley share a down-to-earth, pragmatic view of the effect of the Medal of Honor on their lives.

"I try to keep the number of people who know I have the Medal of Honor to an absolute minimum because it's not something I go around talking about," Kelley said. "But I believe people who know I have it probably pay more attention to me than if I didn't have it. Unfortunately, that's the way life is. In my case, it's something that took place 34 years ago in the space of 30 minutes or so, and it has total irrelevancy to what's going on in the world or in my life right now. Nevertheless, it's assumed a large piece of my life. Right now my job is taking care of veterans, and it has nothing to do with the Medal of Honor."

Told of Kelley's analysis of the medal's impact on his life, Hudner said, "I wouldn't change a word of what he said."

He thought most recipients would agree.

"Very rarely do I ever refer to myself, or introduce myself, or indicate in any way that I have the medal," he said. "It's sometimes embarrassing when someone has just been told that I have it. I don't mind it, but I'd rather make an impression on someone and then later on have them say, 'Gee, we didn't know you had the Medal of Honor.' I'm proud as hell to have it. It's one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, but I've been very fortunate, and maybe I've been fortunate because I have the medal. But if I didn't have it, I think I'd still be happy."

 

   

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