By Karen Nugent TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
LEOMINSTER — Throughout Helen Hill’s apartment, there are reminders of the handsome young soldier with the sparkling blue eyes. Framed portraits hang on the wall and sit on tables. A teddy bear on the sofa plays electronic patriotic songs.
There’s the official letter from the Army offering condolences and describing her son as a “courageous soldier in this vast and most cruel of wars,” and Mrs. Hill, 89, has a yellow star designating her a Gold Star Mother — meaning a child was killed in action — on her clothing and in her front window.
Yet when her son, Pfc. David A. Hill, was killed in Vietnam in 1969, she and her husband, now deceased, had to keep their shades drawn to avoid hurtful, insensitive comments about his military service.
“We were getting calls from people saying, ‘Are you happy now that you got your son killed?’ It was so hard,” she said.
Her husband suggested leaving their hometown.
“We were just left to ourselves, but I did not get bitter. I just thought I would try and help the other veterans, and give of ourselves and work with them,” she said.
Despite the turmoil surrounding that war, Mrs. Hill at the time attempted to get city officials to name a street near where they lived in his honor. It wouldn’t have been much of a change: from Hill Street to David A. Hill Street. The earlier “Hill” name has no connection to the family.
They were refused, Mrs. Hill said.
“They called it a conflict not a war,” she said.
A renewed effort is under way, with the help of City Councilor Claire M. Freda, whose late husband also served in Vietnam.
Helen Hill, 89, holds a photograph of her late son, Pfc. David A. Hill, as she stands on Hill Street. (T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG)
Mrs. Freda recently submitted a petition to the council to change the name of the street, near Pleasant Street, to David A. Hill Street. So far, it has not been acted on.
“It is simply a step to start the process, not to cause any hardships,” she said.
Mrs. Freda said some residents have already questioned if a name change would cause problems with mail delivery and property deeds.
“If a legal opinion says it would be difficult then I would ask that the street be dedicated with a sign on the street sign itself in David’s memory,” she said.
The street naming request was partially prompted by the recent naming of a park and a bridge in memory of Pfc. Jonathan Roberge, a Leominster native killed in Iraq in 2009 at age 22. Ceremonies and fundraisers for Pfc. Roberge have drawn hundreds, including state and local officials.
“That made me live my own heartache all over again, since it was the first military death in a long time,” Mrs. Hill said. “I am not envious — my heart goes out to the family — but I thought ‘shame on me for not doing something sooner for my son.’ I find some people still resent Vietnam veterans.”
According to the Leominster Veterans Services agency, Pfc. Hill, a Leominster High School graduate, was killed in action on Feb. 13, 1969, near Duc Pho, Vietnam. He was 21, and served with the Army Company C, 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade. He was one of nine Leominster soldiers killed in action in Vietnam.
Richard N. Voutour, director of veterans services, said that besides Pfc. Roberge and the 10 fallen Vietnam War soldiers, one died in service in 1969 on a training mission in Virginia, and two men died while on active duty in the Gulf War in 2001.
Mrs. Hill said her son had just finished broadcasting school when he was drafted in June 1968. He went to Army training for a few months, came home in December and was sent to Vietnam in January 1969. He was shot in the arm a few weeks later, and the family thought he would be discharged.
He was sent back into combat and killed three weeks later.
“We got the news at 7 a.m. on Valentine’s Day,” Mrs. Hill said. “A very young minister who said it was his first time informing a family of a military death came with the Army car.”
Mrs. Freda said she wants to raise awareness of how Vietnam War veterans were treated.
“Other veterans did not acknowledge them. The support mechanisms are so much different now, maybe because 9-11 brought patriotism back. I had thought about getting that street name changed for a long time, and I watched Helen’s pain come back through the Roberge’s suffering.”