WATERVILLE — Mary “Dottie” McGuirk, 89, sat listening to Travis Mills on Thursday as he spoke about wanting to make it a priority in 2018 to say “welcome home” to Vietnam War veterans who did not get the reception they deserved when they returned from the war many years ago.

A 20-year active-duty Air Force Nurses Corps veteran, McGuirk was one of more than 200 Vietnam veterans, their relatives and others who turned out Thursday at the Waterville Elks Lodge for a free Vietnam Veterans Day breakfast hosted by the Travis Mills Foundation and sponsored by Residential Mortgage Services.

It was a touching event for McGuirk, who lost not one, but two husbands in the war. Both died in plane crashes.

“I am very grateful for those who organized this event,” McGuirk said after the breakfast. “As a Vietnam veteran, we didn’t get much recognition; and it’s nice to see the men and women here, and they’re all happy. It’s part of healing also because you’re sharing memories with others.”

Mills, a retired Army staff sergeant who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, was wounded critically when he stepped on a bomb April 10, 2012, while on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. He lost parts of both legs and both arms and is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive his injuries.

Still recovering, Mills has made it his life’s mission to support veterans injured in combat. In September 2013, he founded the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit organization to benefit and assist those veterans. He also founded the Travis Mills Group LLC and consults with and speaks to companies and organizations all over the country, seeking to inspire people to overcome adversity and challenges.

Mills told his story to the crowd Thursday, noting that the staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was wonderful and where a Vietnam veteran named Bob encouraged him, telling him he was going to be fine. He said it is because of Vietnam veterans’ sacrifice and service, and because of what they did not get afterward, that he (Mills) was able to be at Thursday’s event to thank them.

“We would not be a free nation without your sacrifice and your service,” he said to a standing ovation.

Mills sharp sense of humor and adept storytelling turned what started as a somewhat somber event into a lively one as veterans and others in the audience laughed uproariously.

For McGuirk, who was wearing an American Legion Post 62 cap and vest, Mills is a hero and refreshingly inspiring.

“He’s the most energetic, positive man I have ever met in my 89 years. He really is,” she said. “I give him so much credit. Here he’s lost everything and he’s helping the veterans. God bless him, and I’m so glad he’s got a little boy now.”

McGuirk’s story was featured on a video presented at the breakfast in which she was interviewed by the Travis Mills Foundation.

Afterward, veterans and others approached her to shake her hand and give her their thanks.

A gentle, affectionate woman who held on to people’s hands as they greeted her, McGuirk said she was commissioned on March 11, 1954, and went to Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma, where she met the man who would be her first husband, Capt. Gerald D. Johnson. They were married on the base in 1957 and then were transferred to MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida. They were there one month when his plane went down.

“It was so hard,” she said.

She was transferred to Burderop Air Force Base in England, then to Air Force recruiting in Seattle and later to Sacramento, California, before being sent to Hawaii.

“I was in medical evacuation,” she said. “Usually we flew in C-141s. We used to pick up 90 patients in Vietnam and we flew with two nurses and four medical technicians at 35,000 feet, and then we had to look for a hospital that could take 90 patients.”

She then was sent to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, as they wanted her to take over the operating room. The crew would start in the morning with 40 units of blood kept in the refrigerator in back of her desk, she recalled.

“We had so many casualties,” she said.

In Hawaii, she married Maj. Laurence McGuirk, an Air Force pilot who flew a T-39, which she described as like a baby executive jet.

“When we left the Philippines, I was six months pregnant and I was ordered to resign my commission. He was assigned to Minot Air Force Base in a B-52. We were there at Minot one or two months and he was killed in a B-52, 13 miles north of the base. My son was 3 months old, and I adopted my husband’s son, who was 10 years old. His wife had died of cardiac arrest. I had two kids and my mother to care for and that’s why I fought to go back to active duty. I wrote to the secretary of the Air Force, a short letter, five paragraphs, telling him what happened and what I needed. Nine days later, he ordered me back on active duty.”

She ended up serving 20 years.

“I’m so lucky,” she said. “I got out of the Air Force with two arms and two legs. The only thing I lost in the Air Force is my hearing. I can only hear about 40 percent right now.”

As she spoke, McGuirk plucked several dish and hand towels from a large bag. She said she crochets tops and hangers for the towels, which she sells for $5 each, and she gives the profits to the Travis Mills Foundation.

Also in the audience Thursday was Frank McAdoo, 66, of Waterville, who was in the Marine Corps. from 1969 to 1973 and served in Vietnam.

McAdoo worked in demolition, blowing up bridges and buildings and anything that got in the way, he said. When he arrived home from the war, people criticized him.

“You got spit on, called baby killers, baby rapers, never got any respect at all,” he said. “Now it’s about time veterans get the recognition we should have got a long time ago.”

Now, McAdoo said, people see him on the street and acknowledge his contributions.

“I was even in Walmart and a 7- or 8-year-old came up and shook my hand and thanked me for my service. I thought that was real great.”

McAdoo’s brother, George McAdoo, 68, also of Waterville, was in attendance. He served in the Navy from 1969 to 1975.

The Oak Hill Choir Voices of Color performed. Luke Phillips, of Residential Mortgage Services, who served 20 years in the Army, including two tours in Iraq, spoke.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.