For Sue Guilmain: A feeling of belonging, a chance to reach out

For Sue Guilmain: A feeling of belonging, a chance to reach out

One More Thing

On Memorial Day a dedicated group of members from Balfour-Cole Post No. 64, American Legion turned out to honor and pay their respects to the men and women who gave their lives in the service of their country.

Among those present for the brief ceremony held at the Veterans Memorial in Deerfield Park was Army veteran and post member Susan Guilmain of Smithfield, a former adjutant of the group.

The uncertainty surrounding public events, based on the projected COVID-19 protocols at the time the annual observance was being planned, caused the program to be greatly abbreviated. It usually consists of contingents of Scouts, veterans, and present-day members of the armed forces, as well as speeches, musical offerings, a rifle salute, and the playing of taps. This year it was condensed to a simple lowering of the flag to half-staff, a three-volley salute, and taps, with a short commemorative blessing read by past post commander John “Skip” Sweeney.

Absent was the usual substantial crowd of local residents who come out to mark the day and acknowledge the debt of appreciation that their presence signifies.

Somehow, the brevity of this year’s event and the solemnity of the cadre of 10 or so participants and an equal number of audience members seemed to make the moment even more moving than usual.

The determination and seriousness of the members despite the adverse circumstances seemed to reflect the quiet dignity and symbolism of the memorial and its various stones and plaques which honor the veterans of all branches of the military in all wars and conflicts.

It would come as no surprise to friends and family that Sue Guilmain was there. A veteran of the Army Reserve, she has belonged to the post for a number of years. An alumna of the University of Rhode Island, where she studied sociology, she joined the service to help pay for graduate school at Boston University. There she earned a degree in occupational therapy.

The Army put her in a program utilizing her civilian-acquired skills, and she served with the 455th General Hospital Unit in Providence and also the 76th Division (Training). She was in the Army Reserve for 25 years, retiring in 1999 as a major.

“I learned to drive two and a half ton trucks and ambulances,” she relates with a smile. Then she adds that she was among the first women in the service to have weapons training.

“I qualified as an expert with the M-16 and the .45,” she notes.

Susan’s “day job” was as a pediatric occupational therapist, and she worked for years for the Community Care Alliance, which was formerly called Northwest Community Nursing. She also had stints with Zambarano Hospital and at the Tavares Pediatric Care Center, which she describes as the state’s only pediatric nursing home. She also taught at New England Institute of Technology.

Her professional assignments, coupled with her training activities with the Army Reserve, which took her to destinations like Fort Bragg and Walter Reed Hospital, provided her with a range of experience that even she marvels at.

Reflecting on some of the cases she witnessed while on training duty, she mentions working with burn patients and amputees, and focuses on one where she was designated to assist a paratrooper whose parachute did not open. He wasn’t killed because a tree cushioned his fall.

“He broke every bone in his body, though,” Susan says, explaining that her rotation didn’t last long enough to see him all through the therapy, but she recalls the case vividly.

Other memorable incidents in her civilian career included caring for a patient whose family had a boa constrictor in the house and being met at another patient’s door by the child’s mother who was an exotic dancer and greeted Susan unclothed.

Her time in the military is special to her. “I can’t say enough about the discipline,” she observes. “There is so much to be said for discipline,” she continues, adding “making beds, getting exercise, taking orders. It prepares you for life.”

She even sounds a bit nostalgic when recounting her basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

“It was over 100 degrees every day. We had to do physical training every day, and we had to do it at 4 a.m. because that was the only time it was under 90 degrees, and the rule was you couldn’t do drills if the temperature was above 90. We were all in it together, Black and white, men and women. It was great.”

She was in line to be called up during Operation Desert Storm which took place in January 1991, but she was deferred since she just had her fourth child and was still breast-feeding. Her husband Roger, also in a medical unit, was activated and served.

After joining the American Legion, Susan got involved in its outreach activities, among them visiting in the town’s schools to talk about Veterans Day. When she met with students, she was quite surprised to discover that some of them didn’t know women served in the military.

“A lot of the women were quieter about their service in the past, and I’m not sure why,” she declares, implying that is no longer so.

Of her participation in Legion events, she says “there is still a lot of camaraderie, and there is a chance to do something for the community.” She offers examples of the programs the Balfour-Cole Post is involved with. They include such activities as sending military C.A.R.E packages to veterans. She mentions Lou Dolce, a 97-year-old from Smithfield who is at the Veterans Home in Bristol, who says he felt like he was still in the military when he received the package.

The post also reaches out to the schools with programs on American flag folding and etiquette training, an oratorical contest on the meaning of Memorial Day, and Veterans Day discussions with students in middle school and high school.

There are currently 25 or so members who are active, including some four or five women. Meetings which are usually preceded by a meal are held on the last Wednesday of the month at the Legion Hall at 170 Pleasant View Ave.

Nationally, membership requirements were broadened in 2018 to include anyone who has had at least one day of active-duty service dating from Dec. 7, 1941, and thereafter. For more information, call 401-300-4550.

(Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com)