For vets, ‘our touchstone’ – Leominster’s Helen Hill had heart of Gold, 1923-2014
By Cliff Clark, [email protected]
LEOMINSTER — Longtime veterans’ advocate, supporter and Gold Star Mother Helen Hill died on Tuesday. She was 91.
“It is a great loss to us,” said Richard Early, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 116 in Leominster.
Hill, said Early, had a special gift that allowed her to connect with veterans.
“She had the ability to give the gift of kindness to Vietnam vets, a way of soothing and nurturing veterans. She provided extraordinary support for vets just by being herself,” said Early, who had known Hill since the early 1970s and worked with her on a scholarship program for the sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans attending local schools.
“It made it a very valuable ceremony for the children and veterans,” said Early.
She also represents the end of an era in Leominster, said Early.
“She was the last Leominster resident who was a Gold Star Mother (of a Vietnam War casualty),” said Early.
“She was our touchstone,” he said, also describing her as “strongwilled, but kind, humble and compassionate.”
City Councilor and Gold Star Wife Claire Freda had known Hill for three decades and said the two forged a bond as a result of their shared experience of loss. Freda’s husband Ronald died from wounds suffered during the Vietnam War.
“She was a remarkable woman. It is a real loss to the veterans that have such an affection for her,” said Freda.
Freda said when Hill learned of her husband’s death, “she couldn’t get here fast enough.”
“She had a special relationship with Ronald,” said Freda, whose husband died several years after sustaining his wounds in Vietnam.
Hill’s son, David, was killed in Vietnam on Feb. 13, 1969, when his company was ambushed. He was 22.
She learned of his death on Valentine’s Day.
In a story that appeared in the Sentinel & Enterprise on Feb. 13, 2009, Hill recounted the day she learned her son had died.
When she woke on that fateful morning, a U.S. Army chaplain was at her door holding a telegram that reported the death of her son the day before.
“I felt I lost my best friend. But he said, ‘I’m going to serve my country, and this is what I want to do,’ ” said Hill in 2009.
David had just graduated from college in 1968, according to the story, and he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and deployed to Vietnam in December. He was wounded shortly after arriving. He was treated for his injuries, but soon returned to combat.
“He was a rambunctious young man who loved acting and participating in city service organizations and had his sights on one day becoming the mayor of Leominster,” read the story published in 2009.
She also spoke of the dark days Vietnam war veterans experienced as they returned home to a country that had largely turned against the war.
“It was devastating when my son came home … we were almost in hiding. (Vietnam) was a conflict that brought out a lot of hate. … When we saw the way things were when David was brought home, my husband and I said, ‘We are not going to be angry with people or God. We are going to do what we can to be active in our community. We’ll do that in David’s memory,” said Hill in 2009.
“She could have been bitter,” said Freda about negative public sentiment about the war at the time. “But she wasn’t. She turned that negative into a positive.”
“Being a Vietnam veteran was not very popular, but they never shied away from their strong support of those veterans,” said Early.
For Mayor Dean Mazzarella, that dedication to the veterans was a testament to her inner strength.
“She supported the Vietnam veterans when it wasn’t fashionable to do so,” said Mazzarella.
The city’s Veterans Services Officer Richard Vouture echoed Mazzarella.
“It was a dark time, but she overcame that. She was a staunch supporter of veterans with everything she did,” said Vouture.
Freda also said that Hill lived long enough to see veterans who returned from war receive the welcome from the public that was missing when her son returned home to be buried.
When Leominster native Jonathan Roberge was killed in Iraq in February 2009, only a few days away from being exactly 40 years since David lost his life, Hill was part of a group of Blue Star Mothers that presented his mother, Pauline, with a Gold Star flag.
“She saw how far we’d come when Jonathan died,” said Freda.
Since David’s death, Helen had participated in every Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremony. When the city commemorated Veterans Day in November, Helen’s frail health prevented her from laying the wreath at the veterans monument.
Despite that, she watched the ceremony from Freda’s nearby car and was in attendance during the ceremony in which Phyllis Yelle was honored with the Helen Hill Patriotic Award.
Hill filled the empty place in her heart created by the death of her son with the veterans she embraced and provided comfort to, Freda said.
“She felt their pain and could recognize when they were becoming depressed, Freda said. “She really felt it.”
Follow Clark on Tout and Twitter @cliffcclark.