On a visit to Washington, D.C., an old soldier is saluted by many

Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 12:37:59 AM. Lewis O’Brien loved all the handshakes, from more people than he could count.They approached the World War II veteran at airports and historic monuments last Sunday in our nation’s capital, and the attention he received created that proverbial lump in...

Lewis O’Brien loved all the handshakes, from more people than he could count.

They approached the World War II veteran at airports and historic monuments last Sunday in our nation’s capital, and the attention he received created that proverbial lump in the old man’s throat.

Tears fell, too, from an individual whose generation – often called The Greatest Generation – fought to hide its emotions almost as hard as it fought the Japanese and Germans.

“The best day of my life,” O’Brien told me on the phone before I visited him at his home Friday in Londonderry.

Those were pretty strong words from an 89-year-old man who arrived in Japan shortly after a pair of Atomic bombs destroyed two major cities there and ended the war.

They’re words upon which to build a classic Veterans Day column, because O’Brien’s trip to Washington D.C., part of the Honor Flight New England program, produced emotion and nostalgia that’s hard to beat.

Honor Flight, headquartered out of Hooksett by a former cop named Joe Byron, offers free trips for aging veterans to D.C. Men like O’Brien take a bus tour, stopping at the tributes to those who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with its changing of the guard ceremony, is on the schedule as well.

I’ve gone on two of these flights as a writer, and the things I saw were, to say the least, were powerful on their own. The impact of traveling with these veterans who fought in jungles and on beaches, and who watched their buddies die and stood in the ruins of leveled cities, brought the D.C. experience to a new level.

“I bet close to 100 different people came over to shake my hand,” said O’Brien, with his daughter, Pam O’Brien, sitting nearby. “Well, naturally I broke down and this and that, and that was the high point.”

O’Brien’s story is a great American story. The one about the high school junior at Pinkerton Academy who has a beef with his math teacher, drops out and joins the Army.

The one about convincing his parents to sign the paperwork because he’s too young to enlist. The one about other family members inspiring him to fight because they were already overseas, in some awful place.

O’Brien, lucid and mobile, brought over a photo of his Uncle Bobby.

“He went into the Air Force,” O’Brien told me. “He got shot down and lost his leg. He was a prisoner of war in Germany.”

Other uncles followed, so O’Brien did too. The war ended in 1945, and O’Brien arrived in Osaka soon after. He was part of an early American occupying force.

He saw cities that had been reduced to rubble. He saw the unthinkable after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by nuclear weapons.

“Everywhere you went,” O’Brien said, “there was concrete, bridges, whatever, you could see silhouettes burned right into the pavement. People right there, burnt to a crisp.”

These are the memories that veterans for so long locked away. They returned home, got married, got jobs, had children.

O’Brien sought a career with the New Hampshire State Police, but, at 5-foot-3, was deemed too short. As O’Brien says, “I moved from Boston to Londonderry when I was 3 or 4 years old, and I didn’t grow much taller after that.”

He and his family are now defined by the Londonderry Fire Department. O’Brien worked there for 22 years, retiring in 1993. His son, Darren O’Brien, is the chief, and his granddaughter’s husband, Bo Butler, is a lieutenant.

Butler served in Iraq in 2003, and he’s the one who got this Honor Flight thing rolling for O’Brien. Butler wanted to bring his own grandfather, also a firefighter and World War II veteran who served at Iwo Jima, but he died before Butler got the chance to take him.

“That didn’t stop me from wanting to be deeply involved with the Honor Flight program,” Butler, who also lives in Londonderry, told me by phone. “I figured I had my wife’s grandfather in town. I’ve got to sell this to him.”

Which he did, after several tries. O’Brien resisted at first, opting to stay home with his wife, Phyllis, who was on dialyses before she died less than two years ago. In September, Butler brought O’Brien to an orientation in Nashua, allowing him to dip his toe in the water, with no pressure to commit to the trip.

“It only took a couple of minutes and I saw this guy light up,” Butler said. “I’d never seen him interact like that. He was genuinely happy. It gave him something to look forward to after losing his wife.”

It’s a one-day trip, a rush of history and nostalgia, of old stories and new bonds, of relatives acting as “guardians,” pushing fathers and grandfathers in wheelchairs to see the tributes built for them.

O’Brien was greatly moved by the Korean War memorial, which showed 19 soldiers on patrol, each wearing rain gear, each with lifeless expressions.

“That one really stood out to me,” O’Brien said. “I felt sorry for those guys, what they had to go through. When I got there I was choked up, and some of these guys were crying away because they had lost friends.”

They saw the circular tribute to World War II veterans, with its fountains and sculptures and gold stars. They saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the shiny black wall with its endless trail of names. They saw Arlington National Cemetery, where Uncle Bobby is buried.

And they felt the warmth, both of them, on a trip that annually gives the country a chance to say thanks.

“I never got much hand shaking before,” O’Brien said. “This told me that you haven’t been forgotten. That’s what I thought. You were remembered.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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