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Combat veterans connect across wars, generations at VA 'Welcome Home' picnic in Leeds

GENA MAGIARATTI
Carlton Steele of Springfield, right, a chief petty officer in the Navy, shows photos of his recent deployment to Guantanamo Bay to young men who attended an event Saturday sponsored in part by the local VA. Looking on at left is Alex Inman, left, a Marine officer candidate from Westford. At far right is 
Christian Egeberg a Marine officer candidate from Woodstock, Conn., and Matt Dore, a Marine officer candidate from Shelburne.

GENA MAGIARATTI Carlton Steele of Springfield, right, a chief petty officer in the Navy, shows photos of his recent deployment to Guantanamo Bay to young men who attended an event Saturday sponsored in part by the local VA. Looking on at left is Alex Inman, left, a Marine officer candidate from Westford. At far right is Christian Egeberg a Marine officer candidate from Woodstock, Conn., and Matt Dore, a Marine officer candidate from Shelburne. Purchase photo reprints »

“When we got back, we were completely ignored,” Brodeur said.

So when around 150 members of the military and their families were treated to a picnic and homecoming celebration in Look Park on Saturday, it meant a lot to them to see the younger generations of soldiers being recognized.

White, of Hull, and Brodeur, of Westfield, both 66, were among guests at the second annual “Welcome Home” picnic for veterans and active service members organized by the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System and co-sponsored by the Veterans Services offices of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Greenfield Community College.

Judy Gagnon, coordinator of veterans services at UMass, said she is aware of a special connection between Vietnam veterans and veterans who fought in more recent wars.

“I think it’s great that the generations of vets get together and interact,” she said. “I think they really help each other out.”

To one side of the tent under which guests gathered at picnic tables, uniformed members of the Marine Corps cooked hot dogs and hamburgers. Some of the young Marines were recently named lieutenants; others were still in training.

By mid-afternoon, nearly every picnic table held a mix of young soldiers in uniform and veterans in their street clothes. The veterans swapped stories of their time in the service, and the young military members learned some of what to expect.

“The guests here are a resource to us,” said Charles Staat, 23, of Falls Village, Conn., who was named a Marine Corps lieutenant in March.

Springfield resident Carlton Steele, a chief petty officer in the Navy, said the event gave him the opportunity to tell the young military members what it is like to be deployed. At one of the picnic tables, a group of Marine officer candidates gathered around him as he spoke of his recent experience serving at Guantanamo Bay. They looked on as he flipped through pictures on his camera.

“Their eyes are wide open. Their ears are listening,” said Steele.

Steele, 59, who is still active in the service, noted the transition he must make each time he returns from an assignment.

“It’s a big change — coming home. You’ve been in the military for a year and half, now you have to come back to civilian life,” said Steele, who returned home from the U.S. base in Cuba a few weeks ago. “Transition is difficult sometimes, but you get back into the swing of things soon.”

He said he was able to share stories about similar experiences with other veterans. His wife, Wanda Steele, said she feels it is helpful for veterans such as her husband to have a chance to interact. “He loves this,” said Wanda Steele. “He loves being around veterans.”

‘Same things’

Iraq War veteran Ed O’Gilvie, of Springfield, said he faced an abrupt entry back into civilian life when he reached his mandatory removal date after 30 years in the Army, and was grateful for an opportunity to be surrounded by members of the military again. “It’s good to see other soldiers,” said O’Gilvie, 50. “I imagine they’ve gone through some of the same things I’ve gone through.”

O’Gilvie was among many guests who took advantage of the “activity bracelets” given out at the event, which gave the children of military members a free pass to several park activities. By the time O’Gilvie and his wife, Liz, were finished eating, their 4-year-old son, Evan, was excited to ride the Look Park train.

Also on hand for military members’ children was a table of giveaways, where guests could pick up mugs, T-shirts and toys while supplies lasted. Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Yell and his 2-year-old son, Caleb, were among the early guests to the event, and Caleb was thrilled to have picked up the only box of Legos on the giveaway table.

Yell, 39, who lives in Raymond, N.H., and was in the area for training at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, said he was grateful for the appreciation shown at the event, and also for the opportunity to bring his son.

Richard Tremaine, associate director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, said he hoped the event would give veterans a better understanding of what the VA does on their behalf. “It’s not that unique that people don’t realize the benefits they have through the VA,” said Tremaine, 57, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran.

Army National Guard Staff Sgt. James Vassallo, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said the VA gave him another chance after he had a breakdown a few years after coming home.

“At first it didn’t seem that big of a deal,” he said of his return home from Iraq. But after a year or two of being around people who were not aware of what he had gone through, he said he began to feel the effects of the trauma. “The VA was there to help,” said Vassallo, 33, who is originally from Amherst and now lives in Westfield with his wife, Alexandria, and their two daughters, Brianna, 4, and Abigail, 10 months.

Sheila Davies, the post-deployment manager and minority veterans program coordinator for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, said she is grateful that the event gives VA staff a chance to meet with families of veterans, who she describes as the “backbone” of veterans’ recoveries.

“We don’t get to directly engage with them,” Davies said. “This gives us that chance.”

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