It’s Thursday morning at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and in walks Westerly resident Dan Lapointe, smiling. His cowboy boots clicking on the floor, and his black cowboy hat chock full of military pins on his brow. He brings his own hot coffee and is there every week to support and engage with other veterans for the twice-monthly veterans’ coffeehouse managed by the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program which is part of the Thames Valley Council for Community Action.
The shiny pins on his hat tell a story of his military past; the naval officer crest, the cross pin from the USS Chicago, a ribbon to symbolize Vietnam, the flags of his Canadian and American heritage, guard reserves, a green light for veterans, his year pin for being a member of VFW, and the year he was in Vietnam. Twelve pins in all that tell this veterans story and proud military past.
“I was 17 and just out of high school when I enlisted in 1965 and went to boot camp in Great Lakes Illinois,” Lapointe said, adding that he was inspired by President Kennedy’s famous speech that said reminded Americans to ask not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country. “I wanted to join instead of being dragged.”
He signed up for the US Navy with the intent of becoming a sonar technician on a submarine. However, when he got to boot camp he felt his first wave of disappointment when he was told the Navy did not allow people with glasses on submarines.
From boot camp he was sent to San Diego on board the USS Chicago for on-the-job training in the communications division but instead found himself part of the deck force, maintaining the decks and boats. His natural affinity for mastering challenging situations along with sharp mechanical skills qualified him as an Assault Boat Coxswain handling small boats.
While still in San Diego before deployment to Vietnam Dan was sent to Camp Pendleton for jungle survival training for two weeks. He remembers: “it was living hell, but it was meant for you to know how to handle yourself in a crisis situation.”
Every veteran who came back from Vietnam experienced their own hell and have moments that haunt them still to present day. For Dan, it was his third day in Vietnam when he saw a young girl delivering water with ice to his work detail crew.
“The Vietnamese worked on the base. Your enemy was all over,” Lapointe said. “I saw her open her pajama top and I yelled at the crew to get away. I couldn’t get my rifle out quick enough– next thing I heard was a big bang and all 11 of the crew and the girl were dead. It messed me up ever since.”
After his year-long stint in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966, Lapointe journeyed back to his family’s home in Bristol, Conn. and did what many young men who had been in the war during that time period did. He packed his uniforms and gear away in an attic or the garbage, got a job, and never talked about his experiences to anyone.
He went to work for his father’s construction business as a carpenter for a couple of years. Having learned the trade starting as young as 7th grade, he found it easy to blend back into society despite the emotional and mental trauma he’d experienced in Vietnam.
“I came back from Vietnam not physically wounded but mentally- it’s very hard to describe emotions that run through,” he said.
One experience he didn’t choose to forget when he came back from his time in the military was music and his guitar playing. He quickly earned a reputation for himself playing in local bars and developed a country twang as well as an appreciation for the adult rock tunes that were popular during the 1970’s. Dan made it to the semi-pro musical circuit playing in a Litchfield, Conn. band called Snake Canyon Posse with gigs for private parties and clubs. Pretty soon he became a member of the musician’s union. His love for playing music landed him a gig at Ovation guitars as a technician actually making the guitars. In fact, Paul McCartney has Dan’s signature inside one of the left-handed guitars he purchased from Ovation that Dan constructed.
“I became good friends with Glenn Campbell working there and met Barbara Benton,” he said.
His music became an outlet for him to release the emotions from the war that he had buried for the past 25 years. In 1990, he became a member of the Vietnam Vets of America and finally confronted his PTSD.
“When I was in a situation and knew I was right I would hold my ground no matter what the cost,” he said. “No veteran should go unremembered here in town. A Veteran should enjoy and get the same respect that I adhere to.”
He was asked to represent the VFW on their Board of Control for Westerly, and was an elected chairman to the veteran’s board where he became an integral part of organizing the Veteran’s and Memorial Day parades in Westerly. If you have ever watched a Memorial Day parade, you can feel the pride and comradery as the veteran organizations come together from both Westerly and Pawcatuck to honor and remember what freedom in the United States really stands for and pays tribute to those who served.
Westerly holds the second oldest memorial day parade in the country—only beat out by a little town in Ohio that started theirs a few years earlier. And maybe you have seen Lapointe playing his signature red guitar on the town hall steps for Neighbor Day, an event that has taken place for 23 years in memory of a child who lost his life during a physical altercation with other kids.
“We thought it would be nice to have this event and to bring your neighbor to show everybody we are all neighbors,” he said.
And every Tuesday morning, Lapointe can be found behind the microphone at Westerly’s WBLQ radio station where he hosts the Veterans Hour, an informational show from 10-11 a.m. to let veterans know about the resources and help that is available in the community and through the state.
“This is why we are here,” he said. “Call in and we give you answers. Rhode Island Office of Veteran Affairs Director of Kasim Yarn is a regular on the radio show every month to give veterans and military families updates on what is going on in RI.”
Lapointe’s mission is to let all veterans know that there is help out there and they deserve to get it.
“I’m a 70-year-old veteran and I’m at the peak of my health with a few cricks and cracks, my wife has to run to keep up with me,” he said. “I set out to achieve whenever I can.”
RSVP Veterans Coffeehouse
2nd and 4th Thursday of the month
Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, 12 Chase Street. Coffee, conversation, and speakers.