THROUGH THE EYES OF A FIRST COUSIN
Stanley, Today 12.3.18. is the 49th anniversary of your funeral. In some ways it was yesterday we all were playing catch and now we are 49 years later. We love you very much! Steve & Susan?”,
The inspiration for the Habitat P.L.U.S., Inc. (HP) Veterans’ Program originates from our cousin, Sp/4 Stanley J. Egan, who was killed in Hau Nghia Province, South Vietnam at the age of 20. He arrived in Vietnam 10/01/1969. On 11/01/1969 he volunteered for a reconnaissance mission and was seriously wounded by land mine shrapnel, only thirty days into his tour. Both his legs and several fingers were lost and he was transported to Japan where he died three weeks later from infection, due to the poison laced projectiles in the land mine. On 12/01/1969 Stanley’s body arrived home, in our small town of Saugus, Massachusetts for his funeral. It was over and done in just 90 days, a shock that our entire family has never gotten over to this day.
Our Grandparents emigrated from Italy, after six years of applying for visas to come to our wonderful country. They worked hard, scrimped and saved and purchased seventeen acres of land, staking their foothold in their new country. They built a home and in time had a small market with a gas station and were living the American Dream. They never spoke English fluently. They died within six months of each other, in their 40’s, from a lifetime of hard work, leaving four children behind, the youngest only twelve years old.
Fortunately, our grandparents had the foresight to purchase land, which was partially zoned for commercial use and the remainder provided a residential lot for each of their four children. Three of the four siblings lived side by side for more than 50 years, raising their families together. It was a wonderful way to grow up and there was always some auntie, in our family neighborhood, to make us after school treats.
Stanley Egan, our first cousin, grew up in the house next door to ours. He was a kind, honest, wonderful young man. He was 6 & 8 years older than me and my sister Susan, respectively, and went out of his way, like a big brother, to take us camping in the scary back yard, to little league games, and letting us work on his car, and so many other things. We were as close as any brothers and sisters. He was our role model, the older rock star cousin we worshiped, the kind of guy I wanted to be! He had the “IT thing” we all dream of. Everyone loved Stanley and we were so proud to be his cousin. He was a popular guy and the nicest man I have ever met. A day never goes by that we don’t think of him and warmly recall those earlier “glory days.” It was a perfect time in our lives. Losing Stanley was so surreal. We thought the music would never stop.
Like many other Americans, who had loved ones serving, our parents allowed us to watch the daily TV reports and of course the pictures in LOOK magazine and others. Stanley’s older brother, George, served with honor and came home a decorated hero, just before Stanley was deployed.
Because George had the good fortune of returning home safely, our young minds assumed Stanley would, too. That dream was shattered on 11/24/69 when I looked out the window to see two uniformed army men walking up the walk, toward my aunt’s and uncle’s home. I ran next door and through the back door of my aunt’s house and was right behind my aunt, as the two uniformed men delivered a telegram informing us that Stanley had been seriously wounded. During a reconnaissance mission, the soldier in front of him had stepped on a land mine, killing him instantly. Stanley was badly injured losing several fingers and both legs were severely damaged. After successive surgeries, eventually both his legs had to be amputated above the knee. I can still remember the small yellow telegram with white strips of words pasted on it. I read that telegram a thousand times over.
This pocket park & park behind it, was built in our home neighborhood to honor Stanley.
We passed this site every day of our lives, for many decades Stanley’s dad would raise and lower the flag every single day.
After the soldiers left my aunt’s home we were left to try and process this information. Because I was only thirteen, my aunt was very concerned about what I had just heard. My immediate concern was for her. I knew Stanley’s inner strength and was certain he would prevail. Even without legs, we would still love him beyond measure or reserve.
My aunt and I had to start making calls to other family members. Members of our family had been in WWII and the Korean “conflict” and we had set up a communication relay of calling the head of each family, who in turn would contact everyone in his family circle. Within a very short time, all family members knew of his injuries and went in action.
Starting that evening our extended family visited, cooked, brought food, cried, and consoled each other, hoping and praying for the best outcome. Our aunt and uncle were never left alone, as we painfully waited over weeks, for news of his recovery. Initially Stanley did make some degree of recovery and we all each spoke to him on the telephone several times. He said that he was going to go to Walter Reed Hospital where they were going to make him some new legs. He joked that he had insisted to the doctors that he have hair on his new legs! They said he could and he was very proud of that. Even though Stanley was facing a major life altering disability, he was trying to comfort and reassure us.
Upon hearing the news, our uncle Sonny, who had been working and living in Taiwan, at the time, immediately flew to Japan. Stanley had been transferred there after his amputations, for recovery and in preparation for sending him home. Uncle Sonny stayed with him, talking with him and reading him the sports page every day, never leaving Stanley’s side. He called us every day with progress reports. He was a devoted uncle and our family was extremely cognizant of how painful it must have been for him to watch his sister’s twenty-year-old son lying in bed with no legs, fighting for his life. But Stanley’s positive mental attitude was inspiring and gave hope to all of us. This went on for several weeks, until we got a call that Stanley had taken a turn for the worse and that his infections were going to overcome him.
The next day, every time the phone rang our collective hearts stopped. All day long and long into the night this went on, until we got “the call.” Stanley had finally lost the good fight and would be coming home. It felt as if all the air left the room, as we watched our aunt and uncle sharing the headset, as they received the dreaded news. As young as my sister and I were, we could see the joy of life drain right out of them.
On a bitter cold December day, we laid Stanley to rest. For our whole family, it was the worst day of our lives. It seemed the whole town came out to pay their respects and attend his services. We were in awe of how many people’s lives Stanley had managed to touch in his short life. The outpouring of love and support meant the world to us, as we grieved our loss. It felt like life in our family stood still for years, afterwards. Inspired by the joyful life Stanley led, we all put on a happy face and set about trying to find our way back to normal everyday life.
My sister, Susan, went off to college obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the graduate school of Lesley University in Cambridge MA and became a social worker. She established a successful career in human services, but was restless and wanted to do more, specifically for veterans. While working in the field, she met Bernadette Forti, a wonderful person and consummate professional. Together they came up with the concept of Habitat P.L.U.S., in honor and remembrance of our cousin, Stanley.
At that time, I was a licensed real estate broker and owned a development company. Many of my tenants were disabled veterans in need of assistance. I asked my sister Susan to do some consulting for me and to try and help these veterans. Susan found that many of them had paid a heavy price for their service, returning home with psychiatric disabilities, causing them to cycle in and out of the hospital, eventually resulting in homelessness.
The prevailing school of thought at the time was to provide interim and transitional living models only for Veterans. While politically more palpable to the tax payers, Susan and Bernadette immediately understood that this population needed permanent, rather than temporary, supports. They realized that temporary supports were merely a band-aid approach, which only fueled the revolving door of repeat hospitalizations that resulted in the homelessness crisis. Temporary supports were not only ineffective, but also more expensive, in the long run. Their knowledge and instincts were born out years later when a representative from the Governor’s office told them that they had been doing for twenty years, what the government was just beginning to realize.
In 1989 Susan and Bernadette purchase a magnificent old 1847 Jacob Cohen Mansard Victorian home. With little to no money, they worked tirelessly, overcoming many obstacles, to realize their vision. They personally provided all acquisition, renovation and startup costs and subsidized the veterans’ programs for the first eight years of operation, running it privately. After establishing a proven track record, they applied for and obtained non-profit status, founding the organization now known as Habitat P.L.U.S., Inc. (HP).
They broke the mold and established the current low density neighbor housing model that is widely considered the standard of care for our wounded Veterans. Susan and Bernadette saw a problem, rolled up their sleeves, jumped right in and never stopped. Now, nearly three decades later, Susan and Bernadette have personally changed the lives of 100+ veterans.
Over the years, Susan and Bernadette have assembled a core staff of caring people. Kevin Winchell, the manager, has been with HP for over twenty years. It’s a family effort too, as years ago, they recruited Bernadette’s sister, Claudette, a paralegal, as the office manager/person Friday! Bernadette and Susan have devised an amazing division of duties that complements each of their skill sets, enabling them a hands-on approach, despite limited resources. They run an outstanding and well respected facility where American heroes are treated with dignity and respect.
After receiving nonprofit status, the agency was awarded a state contract by the legislature and administered through the Dept. of Veterans’ Services’ (DVS) The contract represents only 42% of the budget. This means HP must raise the other 58% through grants, community support and donations. With limited resources and massive demands on state funds, getting the money into the checkbook can be problematic. In the past two contract years, despite the legislature appropriating funding for HP and other DVS providers in a timely manner, for reasons DVS has not been able to adequately explain, it failed to release the funding, until four months into the past two contract years. Small grassroots programs, running on shoe string budgets, such as HP, cannot afford to cover costs for four months. Had it not been for the generous donation of the grateful family, of a now deceased veteran, HP would not have been able to meet payroll, keep the veteran’s programs staffed and its doors open. It’s a heart-breaking thing to see how hard Susan and Bernadette have had to work and the personal and financial sacrifices they have had to make, over the years, just to keep the doors open.
Susan and Bernadette spend far too much time struggling to make ends meet. For that reason, HP has elected to make a direct appeal for funding to the general public. We believe the public is compassionate and understanding of the Veteran’s plight. To be effective we need YOUR support. Won’t you please Click or Call to see how you can help a Veteran directly? HP does all the work ourselves so that the most amount possible can go directly to benefit the Veterans’ and the facility they call home. We have no jets, or fancy boardroom or even expense accounts.
Through Susan’s and Bernadette’s decades of hard work and devotion, our cousin Stanley continues to have a positive impact on other disabled Veterans. With your help, Stanley’s death will not be in vain and his legacy will live on through the lives of other deserving veterans.