Jack Casey of Groton sat in a circle of young people and pressed his lips together, holding back tears.
Surrounded by two other veterans, young adults from Rhode Island and youngsters from the New London at the TSETSE Gallery in New London, the U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War shared stories about his role as a member of the Patriot Guard Riders.
The Guard attends send-offs, welcomes home and funerals for veterans. The Guard was paying its respects at one veteran’s funeral, Casey said, when the widow waved goodbye from a distance.
“To this day, you don’t know if she was waving goodbye to her husband or waving goodbye to us,” he said, his voice cracking.
On this hot, second day of summer, veterans and kids came together to experiment with a different wrinkle in the “Returning Soldiers” program organized by the gallery over the past year.
“There’s days no matter how bad it hurts, you will do the funeral,” Casey said. “We had sometimes up to three a day. It’s very important that you thank people for what they do for the country. I would do anything if it would help them on the worst day of their lives.”
Typically in the program, vets just returning from war talk to young people about their experiences. The kids, with the help of a facilitator, brainstorm to pinpoint a message, and later return to create an “installation,” or artistic interpretation, of the experience.
The program is meant to instill respect, empathy and understanding about the issues veterans face when they return from war. Funding comes in part from the Builders Association of Eastern Connecticut and a New London Community Block Grant, said gallery Corporate Chairman Mark Roberts.
This time, though, the veterans participating in the roundtable had served decades ago.
After Casey showed a leather vest he wears covered with badges that read “Riding With Respect” and “Women Are Veterans, Too,” participants said they wanted to focus on the theme of “Thanks” to reflect the message Casey said is not sent often enough to returning veterans.
And they will do that in future meetings, gallery President and Executive Director Therese “TseTse” Lavallee said, by creating badges to put on a leather vest. The piece will then be hung as part of a developing exhibit at the gallery at 190 State St.
Casey said he’s still angry over only recently obtaining significant insurance coverage after being affected by Agent Orange, and about politicians who misrepresent their military history publicly.
The government “knew what Agent Orange was going to do to us, and then for 25 years, they let people die,” he said.
Ramon Morales, 11, of New London, said he was moved by Casey’s talk, and was looking forward to helping decorate the vest.
“I feel sad about all the soldiers dying,” he said.
To participate in future “Returning Soldiers” events, contact the gallery at 860-447-2447.