Vet of the Month: Daniel Gagnon

Daniel Gagnon, a Milford native currently living in East Stroudsburg, entered the United States Army in 1968, a young man convinced that authority (of any kind) existed mainly to “thwart [his] good time.” Four years later, in 1972, he left with a new attitude toward authority, one based more on respect than fear. His training instilled this attitude, he says, particularly with the military police. “They taught me what I needed to know to stay alive,” he explains.

Daniel was sent to serve in Germany. The first two years he worked as a personnel clerk for Army Security Agency, a precursor to the NSA. This involved studying the North Vietnamese language. His daily duties included processing soldiers, both those returning from and being deployed to Vietnam. During this time, American deaths in the war reached their apex, and pressure was on to start pulling back. The ASA program was dissolved by President Nixon in the winter of 1969. During the last two years of his service, Daniel worked within the US Army mortuary system, which involved assisting morticians and funeral directors, processing the remains of the fallen, and occasionally holding funerals (though typically this was done back in the States).

Daniel GagnonWhen asked about his most memorable experiences, two events came to mind. The first involved a horrific helicopter crash in which fourteen people were killed after the craft came down and the fuel tanks ignited.  Daniel was responsible for the recovery and identification of the dead. Fourteen passengers were on board, but the manifest only listed twelve. The bodies were too badly burned to identify by sight. Eventually, the victims’ identities were discovered using various means, such as dental records and x-rays of bone structure.

The second striking experience was coming home. He remarked that he was “out of touch with culture so long that you don’t know you’re out of touch.” This cloudiness was due largely to the cultural isolation overseas. He only had access to two English newspapers: the Stars and Stripes, a weekly Army publication, and the Paris Herald Tribune. Neither covered many events from home.

He was stunned by how much had transpired in his absence, remarking that he had missed “whole blocks of music, literature, culture, and politics.” He asked himself, “How can the world have changed so much since I’ve been gone?” Particularly, he was unaware of the scope of the war protests. “The Stars and Stripes did not report on what was happening at Berkley.” He did not know of “the scale of the resistance to the war,” or “the inappropriateness of the war.” Veterans, even those not directly fighting in the war, were not well received. “We had no triumphant return,” he says. His views on the war changed in light of his experience returning home, and he realized that it was “an unjust war.”

Daniel has worked at the American Legion for twenty years, serving as chaplain and managing the club. The Veterans Administration assisted him with college, acquiring a home loan, and with medical issues. His father also received excellent treatment from the VA during the final years of his life. Daniel’s only complaint was with elected officials. “I don’t feel politically respected,” he says. He recounts that earlier in the century, the vast majority of US Congressmen were veterans, but now that number has sharply declined. “There is no representation,” he said.              

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