PEABODY — U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, who served four tours in the Iraq War as an Marine Corps infantry officer, led off his fifth annual Veterans Town Hall in an attempt to bridge the gap between those who served and those who did not.
Moulton, who lives in Salem, said people come up to him every day asking him to do more for veterans.
“Well, bridging that divide between veterans and everybody else, between veterans and the communities that we so proudly serve is exactly the point of this evening,” Moulton said. “So, if you are not a veteran, I especially want to thank you for coming here to listen tonight.”
About 90 people turned out to hear veterans tell their stories on Veterans Day at Peabody City Hall.
Some, like Peabody’s Peter Kelleher, 94, recounting how, as a member of the Third Army’s 188th Combat Engineers, he was able to save a bridge from being blown up Northern France during World War II by finding a lit charge on the bridge, carrying 50 yards away before it exploded.
But others who spoke centered on their struggles after their service.
Moulton shared a story of when he first realized what war was all about, and a vision that haunted him that made him realize he should seek treatment for post-traumatic stress.
He recalled being on the road to Baghdad, three days into the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Marines ahead of them had shot up a car full of civilians heading the other way.
“There was a young boy lying in the road, he was bout 5 years old, and he was writhing in pain. And at that moment I made probably the hardest decision I have ever made in my life which was to keep going, to drive around him, and just hope that someone behind would stop to take care of them,” said Moulton.
Moulton said he carried the image of the boy’s face with him without telling anyone, and this past year was the first time he shared the story with his family, friends and eventually with the public. He was able to find the courage to share what he saw through hearing stories at veterans town halls like this one.
“Post traumatic stress is a natural reaction to the kinds of things you see in war,” Moulton said. “And, it is a treatable condition.” One of his Marine buddies who was with him that day counseled him: “Seth, after what we saw, it would be a disorder if weren’t affected by it.”
Alex Maus of Wilmington came to the event with his service dog, Pastel. While overseas, he did not lose anyone, “but I’ve lost four of my Marines in the last ...three years.”
“Sometimes I would wake up and I would see this little’s boy’s face we couldn’t protect. And when you come home, you are kind of changed,” Maus said.
Maus came home in 2012 and he was doing OK until he became a first responder at the Marathon bombings in 2013.
The Marines, he said, had taught him to be self-reliant.
“But when you get home, you can’t do it on your own,” Maus said.
He said he started drinking heavily. He became isolated.
He told the audience he wound up being charged with driving under the influence on more than one occasion. In 2017, he was able to get into a program called “Veterans Court,” after his third OUI. He took part in a number of different treatment programs, made progress, then slid back.
A squad mate realized something was wrong and he wound up speaking to one of his sergeants.
“And realizing that that network of people is there, even to talk to somebody, is really where my ‘ah-ha’ moment came from,” Maus said. “I think that if you are going to do this, if you are going to come home, you need to come home to a family, whether that’s a your nuclear family, whether that’s your Marine Corps family, you need to come home to a group of people.”
He’s been sober for more than a year, is able to share his story in public, and help other Marines going through what he was going through.
Petra Wilkes-Edwards of Beverly said she joined the Navy at age 29 and served in Maryland from 2010 to 2013. She defined Veterans Day in a powerful speech,
“What is Veterans Day? It is a time to dust off the cobwebs of time, to extract again courage, to speak up and out of our time,” she said. “Time I dedicated to my country to those of every color and status, the same country that fought against my people so as to keep us from having a voice. I’m not afraid to speak anymore.”
Even though she had two bachelor’s degrees, she choose not to become an officer. She joined, she said, because of the homeless veterans she had met in the streets Fort Myers, Florida.
“I know the temptation to be filled with hopelessness. I know what it is to be the oldest at boot camp. I know what it is to face educational discrimination. I know what it is to be called a racist trope as I stand at attention before a master sergeant. I know what it is to be homeless after my service and sleep with my 6-year-old in van.”
Wilkes-Edwards said she has been able to persevere, calling herself a “juggernaut,” having just graduating with high honors from a master’s mental health program.
Christine Tron of Peabody, a retired Army 1st sergeant who served in the Military Intelligence Corps, is a strong advocate for veterans as a national aide-de-camp for the VFW, among others. She recently won the Deborah Sampson Award from the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services. When she was approached about attending the veterans town hall, she did not realize she would be speaking.
“But, one of my mentors in the VFW had said one time: ‘If you can ever speak where you are going to raise the awareness of issues affecting veterans, take it, because if it’s something that is going to have a positive impact on for people that are really not aware of what’s going on, then that’s always a good thing,” Tron said.