In Marblehead, veterans share stories of service, sacrifice

Several veterans recounted defining moments and daily struggles before, during and after their military careers in a packed Abbot Hall on the eve of Veterans Day Friday.

Steve Hahn, the veterans director for the Eastern Essex District, shares his journey from chef to military veteran to veterans’ advocate.   CURRENT PHOTOS / WILLIAM J. DOWD

The hour of storytelling marked the ninth annual veterans town hall hosted by Congressman Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps captain who served four tours in Iraq. Moulton started the storytelling tradition in 2015 after author Sebastian Junger encouraged veteran town halls as a conduit for civilians to listen to and connect with veterans.

Moulton’s service in Iraq included being a platoon leader during the invasion in 2003 and subsequent tours in the following years.

 “To look out and see so many people willing to listen — I can’t tell you how much that means,” said Moulton. “Thank you for spending part of your Veterans Day together with us.”

Leanna Lynch, a community relations specialist at the Bedford Veterans Administration, shared her compelling journey from small-town Massachusetts to the Army and now to veteran advocacy.

Lynch, who served 16 years, initially joined the military with aspirations of becoming a state trooper. She humorously recounted the challenge of convincing her father to sign her enlistment papers at 17.

Lynch’s military career was marked by her determination to excel in a male-dominated field.

“It was difficult because you had to prove yourself,” she explained.

She also spoke candidly about experiences with sexual harassment, emphasizing the importance of discussing these issues for healing and change.   

“I share this because it’s still something that’s ongoing,” she said. “It’s something that we need to recognize.”

Today, Lynch continues her service at the VA, focusing on supporting veterans and addressing the challenges they face.

Donnie Jarvis, director of veterans services for the town of Billerica, shared how serving as an Army engineer in Iraq and Afghanistan allowed him to better understand his late grandfather, a Vietnam veteran. Jarvis was injured by a blast from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan and spoke candidly about the hardships he faced adjusting to civilian life.

“I gained a much deeper understanding of what freedom truly means and what it means to be a veteran,” Jarvis said. “There were a lot of learning curves, ups and downs.”

Congressman Seth Moulton talks with a veteran during his veterans town hall on Friday afternoon.

Steve Hahn, the veterans director for the Eastern Essex District, recounted his journey from chef to military veteran and finally to veterans’ advocate. Hahn, who grew up in Salem, initially found his calling in cooking.

“It was my first passion in life,” Hahn said, reminiscing about his early career, including his role as the head chef at Whole Foods in Swampscott.

The turning point in Hahn’s life came with the tragic death of Jared Raymond, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2006. This event deeply affected Hahn, compelling him to join the military.

“I quit my job right after his funeral, and that was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever done,” Hahn shared.

Hahn’s military service was marked by both camaraderie and loss. A turning point came on Nov. 6, 2008, when Hahn himself was seriously injured in a suicide bombing.

“I’ve had three spine surgeries at Walter Reed,” he said, detailing the injuries that ended his military career.

While recovering, Hahn found a new purpose in helping fellow veterans.

“That’s also where I found my passion for helping my fellow veterans and their families,” he said.

Hahn said veterans have a hard time transitioning back to civilian life, including dealing with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress. He emphasized the loss of purpose many veterans feel and his commitment to helping them find it again.

Eric Ryan, a case manager at Clear Path for Veterans New England, helps formerly homeless veterans access housing, benefits and support services. He said his Marine Corps experience led him to continue serving fellow veterans.

“It’s probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life but also one of the most frustrating,” Ryan said. “Whether the day is good or bad, they’re all my brothers and sisters.”

MHS chorus performs “Marblehead Forever” at the Veterans Day program at Abbot Hall on Nov. 11. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

On Nov. 11, Veterans Agent Dave Rodgers led his last Veterans Day program at Abbot Hall before retiring. Vets and their families packed the hall and the Marblehead High School chorus performed several songs, including “Marblehead Forever.”

Leigh Blander contributed to this report.

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