At Natick Legion post, an Army man keeps giving
NATICK - When Patrick Clark was elected commander of Natick’s E.P. Clarke American Legion Post 107 three years ago, he dove into the job. Clark, 45, an Army sergeant first class from a family with a long military tradition, served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a medic, caring for and comforting the wounded.
He eventually became one of their number, suffering injuries to his knees, back, and lungs, and is stationed in the area now as he receives medical treatment. But he’s also helping people in a different way, without pay. “I do it because it’s the right thing to do, to help veterans and their families,’’ Clark said.
He does much of it on his own, like getting up well before the sun rises on Thanksgiving mornings to stuff and roast a 20-pound turkey. “I bring it to the post and drop it off,’’ he said, adding he’s often there as the veterans devour it.
On Dec. 18, Clark will put on a Christmas party for children, who can have pictures taken with Santa. On Patriots Day, as the Boston Marathon passes the post on West Central Street, Clark will be cooking hot dogs and burgers for sale to spectators. “We raised enough money to pay for the transfer of flags ceremony at the Natick schools,’’ said Clark. “That costs more than $400. We paid for the whole thing.’’
When the traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came to town, Clark worked with the Natick Veterans Council to smooth out the details. When a Massachusetts soldier dies, he said, “I give it my all to get to the funeral. We get to do that far too many times.’’
Post 107 gives college and summer camp scholarships. Clark never seems to step back and take a deep breath; he says the needs of the post “are on my shoulders.’’
Local veterans frequent the post because it’s a comfortable environment. “Some of the guys talk about when they were in the service,’’ said Clark. Others would rather just sip a beverage and watch football. Plus, he noted, “The beer isn’t nearly as expensive as it is in a bar, and you’re allowed to smoke.’’
Clark, who is tall and athletically built, joined the military in 1988. “I wanted to work in the medical field. At the time I didn’t think I’d make a career out of the Army,’’ he recalled.
“On 9/11, I was sitting in the dining room at Fort Bragg,’’ in North Carolina, where his unit was based. “When the second plane hit, we were told to get our gear together. They said, ‘This isn’t a drill.’ We had no idea where they were going to send us. It could have been any place in the world.’’
His division was summoned to the World Trade Center in Manhattan, ground zero. “We landed at Battery Park. We set up triages, treated the casualties, firemen, policemen, civilians. We did that for the first 72 hours.’’
They would stay 10 weeks. “We wound up on the rubble pile looking for anyone alive. We didn’t find anyone.’’
Soon after that, Clark was deployed to northern Afghanistan. He was on the front lines for a year, one of the first waves deployed, taking care of the sick and wounded. In 2003, Clark was sent to Iraq. His division looked for roadside bombs. “We found more than found us, thankfully,’’ he said.
When Clark got a 30-day leave and went home to Lake Placid, N.Y., he was served with divorce papers. “That’s another casualty of war,’’ he said of his first marriage.
In late 2005 he was sent to a military base in Little Rock. That’s where he met Cindy Hughes, who was in the National Guard. Hughes, who grew up in Wellesley and lived in Natick, was waiting for a flight, but it was delayed for seven hours.
“We went to the airport bar and just talked the entire time,’’ said Clark. “We just hit it off. But we didn’t think we’d see each other again.’’
In February of ’06, Clark was ordered to Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford. Hughes worked there. She had an administrative job on the base, and had served in the military since 1993, when she walked into the recruitment office in downtown Framingham and joined the National Guard.
“I’d been thinking about it for 10 years before I had the courage to do it. I was 29. If I was serious about it, I had to do it then.’’ She went on active duty for two years, and worked for the Wounded Warrior program. Each summer for two weeks she goes to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod for training. “I’m a soldier,’’ she said.
As is Pat Clark. “When I met him, I wasn’t looking for a relationship,’’ said Hughes. He asked her for a date. “It would have been easy for him to take me to a restaurant. But he cooked dinner for me. He’s a very good cook.’’
They were married in 2007. “She’s an amazing woman,’’ said Clark. Hughes has a 14-year-old special needs son from a previous relationship. She’s going to school so she can teach English as a second language.
“I don’t know how she does it, going to school and taking care of her son and me,’’ said Clark, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from “the things I saw the past 10 years.’’
He also injured his back moving wounded soldiers in Iraq, and his lungs are a mess from what he’s breathed in, both at ground zero and the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I’m a warrior in transition,’’ said Clark, “I’m no longer fit for active duty.’’ He hopes to be out of the Army by next month, and is seeking a physical disability retirement pension.
Clark comes from a long line of military people, including his dad and three brothers. He tried college but struggled academically. He left. When he got home, his mother, Patricia, handed him pamphlets from each service branch. “She told me ‘Pick one, because you can’t stay here. You went to college and blew it.’ She was a tough-love mother.’’
“He’s been to hell and back, a few times,’’ said Paul Carew, director of Natick’s Department of Veterans’ Services.
Clark said he is intent on getting a job with the Veterans Administration after his discharge from the Army, adding, “I want to help the soldiers for the rest of my life.
“I don’t deem myself special,’’ he said. “The true heroes are the ones who have lost their lives so we can have the privilege of living in this country. Every kid who has signed up since 9/11 knows they’re going to war. They’re incredibly brave.’’
And himself? “I did my job.’’
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.