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In Celebration of Veteran's Day

The Red Poppy - One American Veteran's Story on This Veteran's Day

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. | The Red Poppy | Southern New England's Elder Law Attorney
RJ Connelly III, Military Police

"In just a few short days, our nation will celebrate Veteran's Day, a time when we pay our respects to all who have served this country," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III, a veteran himself, who served in United States Army in the Military Police division.


"The holiday began as a day to reflect upon the heroic sacrifices of those who died in service to the United States and was called Armistice Day. In 1954. It was changed to Veteran's Day to celebrate all veterans that served in all wars in observance of this holiday. On this special day, I always like to reshare a blog by Don Drake, a member of our staff, about a personal experience he had as a child with a troubled veteran named John in his hometown in New Jersey and that vet's love and respect for the red poppy, a symbol of sacrifice and hope."

Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. | The Red Poppy | Southern New England's Elder Law Attorney
RJ with his grandfather, Robert J. Connelly, Sr.

For Attorney Connelly, he has an intimate knowledge of the issues that many veterans faced then and continue to face when returning from war or other military actions. "In my family, it was almost a tradition to serve our country in the military and then work in law enforcement or the legal profession at home."


Attorney Connelly's father, Robert J. Connelly Jr. was an attorney and probate judge and served in the United States Air Force and his brother, Jeff Connelly, recently retired from the United States Army as a Lieutenant Colonel.


His grandfather, Robert J. Connelly, Sr., was a high sheriff in the State of Rhode Island and served as mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island. He also served the country in the United States Navy during World War II.

Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. | The Red Poppy | Southern New England's Elder Law Attorney
Attorney Robert J. Connelly, Jr.

"Having family in the military and being involved with so many veterans, the following story really hits home for me," stated Attorney Connelly. "So many of our nation's veterans who returned from action did not receive the respect they deserved. This was especially true for those coming back from Vietnam."


"There were so many who also returned suffering from PTSD and turned to alcohol or other substances to deal with what they were feeling," said Attorney Connelly. "In the following essay, we find out that this is what happened to John. But not only did he experience the horrors of war, when he returned home, he became a victim of financial abuse by a relative who kept him secluded from other family members while stealing the money he received from an inheritance. John eventually found a purpose for his life in the form of a paper poppy made by disabled veterans, it's quite a story."

 

The Red Poppy

It was 1968. Having a paper route as a pre-teen introduced me to several interesting and offbeat individuals who lived in or visited my hometown of Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Some of the organizations I delivered to were barrooms, clubs, restaurants, and other small businesses where I got a chance to meet these wonderful characters. It was a different time, but a change was on the horizon. A time of turmoil and unrest was beginning with the assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.


We were also embroiled in the jungles of Southeast Asia, just a few decades removed from World War II. And although we still had a reverence for our veterans at that point, as the 1970s progressed, that would change drastically. But that's a story for another time. This blog is about the Red Poppy, a small handmade flower that was given when a donation is made to the American Legion, and just what it meant to one veteran who was back home in New Jersey but had never mentally left the battlefields of Europe.

Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. | The Red Poppy | Southern New England's Elder Law Attorney
The Civil War Memorial in center-city Easton, PA

I first became familiar with the story of the red poppy over fifty-five years ago when meeting a veteran from a Pennsylvanian city on the Delaware River called Easton. His name was John. I became aware of him while walking with my father along that city's main thoroughfare one early winter day in the mid-1960s during the Christmas season. Easton was a short jaunt across a bridge from my hometown and was the location of most major stores and shops in the area.


John was in front of the Army and Navy store in that Pennsylvania city, standing guard at the door of the store. In one hand was a coffee cup and in the other, a cigarette. His mustache and beard were stained yellow and his fingers a mahogany brown, but there he was in the cold, steam rising with every breath, on that damp and chilly December day. This was a scene I would see repeatedly for years along downtown Easton's Northampton Street, rain or shine, hot or cold, he stood in proud repose. He never initiated a conversation, but if you made eye contact with him or said hello, he would regale you with a story or two about World War II and then good luck getting away.

The Army and Navy store once occupied this space

I was in grade school at the time and seeing John wearing khaki pants, army boots, and always a sash decorated with dozens of red poppies not only made him stand out but garnered the laughter and ridicule of young and old alike. John was considered "crazy" - harmless - but "crazy". Boy, how I wish I knew then what I know now about John and men and women like him.


I learned that his peers referred to him as "Foxhole John", given his predilection for telling battle stories. When I became old enough to work a newspaper route, I would run into John at the bar in the local American Legion Post when I dropped off the evening paper. He would sit in the corner by himself, downing beer after beer, wearing his sash of red poppies. If I arrived later than usual in the afternoon with the day's news, I would see him staggering down the street to parts unknown.


It seemed whenever I saw him, he was drunk or, at the very least, feeling no pain. This was the case except for the few times a year when I saw him seated outside the local Food Lane grocery store taking collections for veterans and giving out red poppies, and yes, wearing that vest of red flowers over a well-fitting and smartly ironed white, military shirt. On those days, John was sober and clean-shaven, sitting up straight and speaking politely with those who donated. It was a different man I would witness in those days.


During the spring of 1972, I joined an American Legion baseball team where I met a friend named Eddie and his father, Bill. I came to find out that Foxhole John was Eddie’s uncle and Bill his brother. One afternoon, I joined them in meeting John in his small room over the local Atlantic Richfield garage. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the stale smell of tobacco and beer. The windows were so stained with tar from the cigarette smoke that the sunshine filtering in was a strange shade of yellow. If I leaned against the wall, the skin on my arm became sticky from the tar, remnants of his burning tobacco.

John lived in a room sparsely furnished

The room was furnished sparingly, just a couch, table, and chair, and a bed that sagged in the middle, covered with stained sheets containing holes burned in them by cigarettes. In the corner sat a trash barrel full of beer cans and liquor bottles, some of which were still half full. On the wall hung a few pictures, stained brown and tilted in different directions, and a radio sitting next to his bed loudly playing a Yankee baseball game, fading in and out, from a New York radio station, WABC. By the door stood a coat rack on which hung his uniform shirt, stained yellow under the arms, and the sash decorated with red poppies of varying shades. The costume of a "crazy man" I thought to myself.


Upon introducing myself to Foxhole John, he remembered me as “the kid” who delivered the newspaper to the Legion bar, which was said to be his second home, but his first, given that most of his meals were of the liquid variety. He then launched into a series of war stories and ended up pointing out the medals that were on his shirt and, of course, the dozens of red poppies that adorned a sash. He went on and on about those poppies and how they represented the blood of veterans and the sacrifice of "America's best", something I sadly could not genuinely appreciate at the time.