Veterans talk about their service — and coming home
Matthew Chistopher talks about learning leadership skills and eating a rattlesnake. Ken Fleury remembers serving on Pacific Islands and discusses finding fellowship at the American Legion. Dan Mazzuca is humbled by the stories about those who didn’t make it home and proud that those who do come home are greeted warmly in 2018.
As Veterans Day approaches, Sippican Week sat down with some tri-town veterans to talk about their years in the service and what being a veteran means to them. Here are their stories.
Fleury’s 20 years in the Coast Guard and 8 in the Coast Guard Reserve took him to Hawaii, the French Frigate Shoals, Kwajalein Lorain Station in the Marshall Islands, Woods Hole and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The Mattapoisett man remembers one of his most harrowing moments on an ocean platform just eight miles off of Horseneck Beach.
As a hurricane approached, a helicopter arrived to fly the Coast Guardsmen to safety. But “we had 20 foot seas. The doors inside were swaying back and forth 12 inches. We had to put lifesuits on, and they picked us up off the tower in close to 70 mile an hour winds because they couldn’t land.”
When a heart condition forced him to retire, Fleury felt isolated. He missed the camaraderie of “being together with the guys.” He has struggled to get medical benefits for his heart condition, and he continues to feel the general public does not recognize and appreciate his service.
Veterans organizations have helped. Fleury joined the American Legion, where “we share stories and stuff. We all have some sort of military service, between the five branches.”
After years of “fighting tooth and nail with the Veterans Administration because of my heart disease,” he got a national veterans group, the Disabled American Veterans to help him get the benefits to which he is entitled.
As for the public appreciation, “I always wear my hat, my military hat,” Fleury said, “and I always thank anyone else that does that for their service. But I don’t think I get thanked more than about three or four times a year. It’s very, very rare.”
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Dan Mazzuca of Mattapoisett served in the Air Force from 1978 to 2003, and still serves as manager of the Transition Management Branch at Hanscom Air Force Base, helping military service members transition to civilian life.
Why did he enlist? “My father was in the service, and his father was in the service. And being in the Boy Scouts for most of my youth, serving and giving back to the community. When I tried to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, I found myself looking at the military, because it had that ideal I believed in: service before self.”
Mazzuca had some hard jobs in the Air Force. For four years he was a “casualty officer.” What he describes as “the best and worst job I ever had,” involved telling the families of fallen veterans that their loved ones had been killed in the service, and helping them with military benefits and funeral preparations.
“To hear the stories that family members had about servicemen that would die in the line of duty… some of these stories are just incredible,” he said.
What does being a veteran mean to Mazzuca? “It means that I fulfilled the goal that I had when I first joined, which was to serve our country in some capacity and protect our country.”
Having enlisted three years after the end of the Vietnam War, when political opposition of the war spilled over on to the men who were sent to fight it, he is cheered by today’s treatment of veterans. In his words, “To see how veterans are treated now really warms my heart.”
A member of the Mattapoisett post of the American Legion for a dozen years, Fleury says he feels “strongly that I can’t complain about the laws that Congress passes if I’m not a member of organizations that get my voice and my feelings known to them.” Plus, “We do a lot of helping our own.”
Like Mazzuca, Marion’s Matthew Christopher says his journey to military service began with the Boy Scouts.
“What got me interested in the military was the Boy Scouts. It’s very paramilitary. My scoutmaster was a Vietnam vet,” Rehoboth native Christopher explained. “From when I was a little kid ... I wanted to join the Army.”
He went to UMass Amherst on an active duty scholarship and “when I turned 23, I was handed my first platoon, which is 30 soldiers. . . . A little bit of schooling, a little bit of military schooling, and then given a platoon. And that was kind of a cool experience.”
Christopher served in Germany, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, and Iraq and worked with British German, French, Austrian and Russian forces.
“I’ve done a bunch of things that I never would have done, jump out of airplanes, shoot guns,” he said.
The National Guard, where Christopher currently serves, still gives him some unusual experiences. “This summer we killed a rattlesnake and ate it,” he said. “Actually, rattlesnake doesn’t taste that bad. We marinated it with pickle juice and tabasco.”
His decision to leave the full-time military came for family reasons. Married with two small children, being away from home for six months to a year was tough.
“When you’re young, it’s great,” he said. But “when you go to Iraq, it’s a year straight. So you’re away from home for a year. And I did two years there, so that’s like being in prison for two years. So we (he and his wife Jennifer) decided to come home.” Christopher said
“I bid for my house online in Marion, sight unseen,” he added, noting that he had been to Rochester to play baseball as a kid, but had otherwise never seen the tri-town.
Looking back on his military experience, Christopher notes “My entire adulthood has been formed around the military. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a soldier, and now I’m a veteran, I guess.”
While the army has given him the chance to see and do things he wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise, service in the Iraq War has also meant dealing with death and loss on a personal level.
“I’ve had a bunch of soldiers killed in the war, or killed when they returned. In fact, I just lost one of my buddies. He had two high school kids and he hung himself,” Christopher said. “That’s the third guy I’ve known to kill himself, when they served in Iraq or when they come back.”
Christopher, like many younger vets, has not joined any veterans organizations. “I just hang out with guys from the Army,” he said.
Christopher is still in the Army National Guard (cq), and still uses military methods to structure his life.
He currently works for the state and, with his wife Jennifer, operates Seaside Crossfit and Seaside Cycle in Wareham. In both roles, “I practice everything I learned in the military. Rather than trying to figure out how people do it in the civilian world, I’ll just grab army manuals” to figure out how to do things such as run the gym.