Guest columnist John Paradis: A veteran who takes helping other vets as his sacred duty

By JOHN PARADIS

Published: 09-19-2023 5:27 PM

In 2022, when Washington bureaucrats thought it would be a good idea to close the VA medical center in Northampton, several veterans, including myself, were incredulous.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern was livid too, and he called on us to speak up so he could bring our voices back to the VA secretary in Washington. At a listening session that spring at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8006 in Florence with McGovern and other local leaders, Jim Bouchard of Granby, a Navy combat corpsman in Vietnam, was there, as he always is, when veterans have been asked to lay it on the line.

“Please God, you guys have got to get the government’s act together,” Bouchard said.

Less than two months later, McGovern pressed Secretary Denis R. McDonough directly and by summer, plans to close Northampton and other VA medical centers across the country were scrapped.

This month, Bouchard’s dedication and commitment to his fellow veterans will be honored and celebrated along with his own combat service when he will be a guest of honor in New York as the Massachusetts representative at a multiday “Purple Heart Patriot Project” national tribute.

The National Purple Heart Honor Mission — which supports programs to promote the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor — has awarded Bouchard an all-expense-paid trip that will include a visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the historic Washington’s Headquarters and a special tour of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, New York. Other events will take place in New York City.

“It’s a really big deal,” says Bouchard’s wife, Sue, who says our nation’s combat wounded veterans “deserve our thanks each and every day.” But the trip to New York, she adds, “is extra special.”

Over the many years I have known Jim Bouchard, he’s been at every rally, every meeting, every event where we veterans have made our presence known.

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He’s a steady and quiet influence, and his story, like those of other Vietnam combat veterans, needs to be told and emphasized and re-emphasized when bean counters look to cut veterans programs and services.

On Aug. 25, 1969, on a day that will live with him until his final day on earth, Bouchard was assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.

About a week after many young people his age were at Woodstock at a Hudson Valley dairy in Bethel, N.Y., opposing the war in Southeast Asia, Bouchard’s unit was on a mission south of Da Nang in the hot and humid Hiep Duc Valley, or what the Marines called “Death Valley.”

In a rice paddy in 100-plus degree heat, the Marines were ambushed and were pinned down by overwhelming enemy gunfire — a killing field. A bullet from a North Vietnamese AK-47 rifle entered the left side of Bouchard’s chest, just below his armpit, about an inch or so away from his aorta.

Three Marines from the 7th Marines — Herbert C. Heintz, Robert A. Ryan and Edward R. Grusczynski — were killed in action that day, and many more were injured. The 1969 battle has been chronicled numerous times in books and articles.

Since his military service, Bouchard, 75, has dedicated his life to helping his fellow veterans, serving his community and being there for his family.

His years and years of post-traumatic stress, therapy and inpatient care through the VA have helped him, he says, advocate and assist other veterans with navigating VA health care and other benefits.

Little did he know that he would draw on every ounce of his experience in helping his own son, Joshua, a Marine Corps veteran, who was paralyzed and lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan.

Together, he and his son, I think, have made more visits to VA medical centers and inpatient units than possibly any father-son tandem I know in western Massachusetts.

“I never realized how useful my time in service would be in helping me with my own family and with other vets,” Jim says. “It’s been a blessing, really.”

When Bouchard is in New York this month, he hopes to connect with another combat corpsman that he believes will also be honored. He is always searching out others and is forever looking to learn something new so he can apply what he learns. There’s always someone to help, he says.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. VA statistics show a painful reality: On average, 17 veterans die by suicide every day. A few years back, the VA’s mental health awareness campaign as part of a national alliance to prevent suicide was labeled “Be There.”

The Veterans Health Administration wants to remind veterans that they are not alone, and help is available. According to the VA, what can make struggles worse for many vets is that we are trained to downplay our burdens and discomfort.

That was Bouchard’s own experience. He knows firsthand that the best way to help a fellow vet is to “be there.” To “be there” means to reach out, to show support, to listen, to care, to listen … to help.

Since we couldn’t join Jim in New York later this month, his family and friends and fellow veterans figured we would thank him in person before he and Sue leave for their trip. At a ceremony at the Three County Fair over Labor Day weekend, Brian Willette, a South Hadley Army veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010, and several of us paid tribute to Bouchard.

“I can’t think of a person who’s made as big a difference reaching out to his fellow veterans than Jim,” said Willette, now the national chief of staff for the state chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Jim Bouchard has seen death and has faced his own death. He is grateful to be alive. This month, he will be with other combat veterans from all over the country to celebrate life, service, and the difference all of us can make when we reach out and help someone in crisis.

John Paradis is a retired lieutenant colonel who lives in Florence.

If you or a veteran you care about is in crisis, dial 988 and press 1.

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