By Barbara Tetreault
SHELBURNE – Former movie star and veterans advocate Chris Noel received a standing ovation Friday at the North Country Veterans Conference and she in turn praised the sacrifices of those in the room.
The country, she said, “too easily forgets the real cost of war.” In particular, she addressed Vietnam veterans, whom she entertained with a daily radio show broadcast to the troops from 1966-1969 and during tours of the country.
“We all owe you a very large apology and a debt of gratitude,” she said.
Noel’s speech was one of the highlights of the conference, which attracted about 200 veterans and their families. During the daylong event, veterans heard about programs and services available to them and visited resource tables and exhibits from more than 40 different organizations. They also shared stories about their military service.
Speaking first, Retired Brigadier General Peter Corey, N.H. National Guard, noted that he lived in Berlin during part of his service with the National Guards. Corey was commander of the Second Battalion 197th Field Artillery in 2003 when 200 soldiers were eventually deployed to Iraq. He recalled friends and family members lining the streets of Berlin and Gorham to wave goodbye on the sub-zero January day the bulk departed to report for active duty.
Corey said the entitlements provided to veterans by the government range from mental health counseling to housing assistance. He said veterans get discounts at state parks and local property tax relief.
He said there has also been an incredible amount of what he termed good will benefits or public appreciation for the service of veterans. Corey cautioned the veterans to be good stewards of the good will they have been shown.
“The government will always provide entitlements but good will is not guaranteed,” he said.
Matthew Mulcahy, associate director at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, said the center offers a wide range of services to veterans. In fiscal 2016, he said the center had 26,245 unique patients. It had 300,840 outpatient visits and 2,537 in-patient visits. While the center, located in White River Junction Vermont, is large, Mulcahy said it is working to become more accessible. He said Director Alfred Montoya is holding monthly meetings throughout the center’s coverage area to get public feedback and answer questions.
Stephanie Higgs, care coordinator for Easter Seals Military and Veterans Services, described the new “Ask the Question” initiative. She said the effort encourages organizations and agencies providing services ranging from healthcare to education to ask if the person or a family member has ever served in the military. If the answer is yes, the initiative helps the providers respond.
Veterans also heard from representatives of the Gorham Family Resource Center, Northern Human Services, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-NH.
For a majority of the veterans, seeing Chris Noel in person was a highlight of the conference.
Born in Florida, Noel started out as a model and moved into show business, landing roles in movies with Elvis, Dennis Hooper, Steve McQueen, and Don Johnson. But a 1965 visit to Letterman Hospital in California with Gov. Pat Brown and baseball legend Sandy Koufax changed her life. A visit to the gangrene ward where Vietnam veterans were recuperating shocked her. Noel said she walked out of the hospital that day vowing to find a way to help.
She auditioned for a show on an Armed Forces Network radio and was hired to do a daily radio program “A Date with Chris”. She also traveled to Vietnam to tour with Bob Hope and went out on her own traveling to some of the isolated firebases to visit the troops. Noel said one of her biggest compliments came when the Viet Cong put a $10,000 bounty on her.
Discovering there are thousands of homeless veterans in this country, Noel opened Vetsville Cease Fire House in 1991 and continues to operate it. She also continues to advocate on behalf of veterans. Noel said her work is a way for her to give back to those who put their lives on the line for their country.
“Freedom is not free,” she concluded, to a standing ovation from the crowd.
After Noel’s speech about her experiences, the veterans were asked to share stories of their experiences of entering the service, serving in harm’s way, and returning home. The reasons for entering ranged from a family history of military service and a desire to serve to those drafted or seeking to see the world. The discussion turned more emotional as some described their service and the reaction they received when returning.
Speaking from first hand experience, Noel urged the veterans to share their pain as a way to deal with it. Her husband, a former Green Beret she met in Vietnam, ended up committing suicide.
Jay Sprinkle, chair of the North Country Veterans Committee, said about 200 veterans and their families registered for the conference. He said the local community really welcomed Noel with the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce presenting her with one of its boom pier awards at a ceremony Thursday night.