“I’m not comfortable at all speaking to people.”
Sandy Combs addressed a crowded auditorium at St. Michael’s College’s McCarthy Arts Center on Sunday afternoon at one of Vermont’s Veterans Town Halls, community forums that aim to bridge the divide between veterans and the friends and neighbors they served. Town Hall events also took place Sunday in St. Johnsbury and Rutland, hosted by CCV Coordinator of Student Advising Marty McMahon and Associate Director of Veterans Services Kyle Aines. Sunday’s Chittenden County event was emceed by Jon Turner, a Marine veteran who has worked extensively to help veterans with the reintegration process. In all, more than 30 veterans shared stories about their service.
In Colchester, Combs took his time. He talked about the 1969 draft, and about serving with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. After the War, he came home. “Years went by. My wife got sick. We lost everything we had. I was looking for something to hold myself together,” he said. “What I found was something that I could do to help veterans.” For 15 years, Combs has been involved with a number of local veterans services organizations and initiatives, including fundraising efforts that helped create The Veterans’ Place, which provides transitional housing in Northfield.
“I’m just a regular guy,” said Combs. “I’ve had some hard times, but I’ve been blessed. What I’ve tried to do is give back as much as I could give back.”
Veterans Town Halls are inspired by a 2015 Vanity Fair story by Sebastian Junger, in which he suggested “making every town and city hall in the county available to veterans who want to speak publicly about the war.” The first Vermont event took place in 2017 and was organized by local coordinator Kristen Eaton, who continues to facilitate the events in Chittenden County. Eaton partnered with CCV to bring the Town Hall to Rutland in 2018 and to expand again to St. Johnsbury this year.
“Each year, I’m floored by the generosity and courage of the speakers at this event, and heartened by seeing so many community members willing to come and listen, with warmth and non-judgment,” wrote Eaton after Sunday’s Town Hall. Marty McMahon, who hosted the St. Johnsbury event, said it opened a conversation between veterans and civilians. “We listened to a wide range of perspectives on service and laid the groundwork for some great community dialogue in St. Johnsbury and the area.”
Just five veterans were signed up to speak at the Colchester event. But by the end of the afternoon, twice as many had volunteered to share. As veterans talked about their experiences, a powerful irony emerged: so much had been taken from these veterans; so many of their stories contained loss. And yet their overwhelming commonality was a desire to give.
David Hurne hadn’t planned to speak, but he was compelled to share. A Marine Corps veteran, Hurne wore a baseball cap and colorful tattoos on both arms. He started out with a long list of the veterans organizations he’s currently involved with. “I don’t say this to say how much I do. I say it because this is what keeps me alive. These things that I do I have to do to stay sober and healthy. There’s a lot of rage and a lot of pain. I ty to work through that by doing this work.”
Maureen Dwyer also served in the Vietnam War. She was 23 years old when she went to Vietnam as a nurse. “For me, it was a no-brainer,” she said. “I have these skills, why wouldn’t I try to help?” Dwyer says her service wasn’t just about taking care of American soldiers. “We took care of GIs, Vietnamese civilians, Allied Forces, Viet Cong.” And it wasn’t just about taking care of injuries. “What I’ve realized as a nurse, then and now, is that you not only tend to the wounded, you witness the wounded.”
“When I think about service now I think more and more about otherizing,” said Dwyer. “Rather than us versus them, it’s all of us. There’s much more that unites us rather than separates us. I am still grateful for those years of service in Vietnam because I still draw from them in my life now. Being of service, and being a witness to others and their lives, is a tremendous gift.”