Kevin Cullen

A wounded heart that keeps giving

June 27, 2010

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It was a blind date. April 26, 1963. They met at Park Street Station. He was 21. She was a year older.

“Everybody told me you looked like Elizabeth Taylor,’’ Joe Dunn said to Maureen Hoey. “You don’t look like Elizabeth Taylor.’’

She looked him in the eyes, narrowed hers, and said, “You’re no great shakes yourself, buddy.’’

She resisted the urge to slug him and they went dancing in Jamaica Plain, at the Arbiter, the German social club. They won a twist contest, won 5 bucks, and Maureen Hoey knew right then she was going to marry Joe Dunn.

Joe joined the Navy, and then he married Maureen. He went to flight school, volunteered to go to Vietnam. On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, 1968, US Navy Lieutenant Joe Dunn was piloting his jet over the South China Sea when a Chinese MIG shot him down.

They never found him.

Maureen Dunn was back home with 19-month-old Joe Jr., and wondered why the Navy told her so little.

But Commander Joe Dunn — they promoted him after he disappeared — was MIA.

Maureen Dunn forced them to look. Just like she forced them to look for all the others, the missing and the POWs.

She took Joe Jr., still a toddler, to a rally at Boston Common and somebody briefly kidnapped him.

“Antiwar radicals,’’ Maureen Dunn said. “They said they wanted me to know what it was like to lose a child.’’

She threw herself into the MIA-POW movement, first for herself, then for the other families. And as the years went on, Maureen Dunn found herself changing, becoming as preoccupied with the living as with the missing and the dead.

They’re still finding remains, from the Vietnam War, even from World War II. It wouldn’t be happening without Maureen Dunn, and when there’s news of another body found, she raises a clenched fist and shakes it.

It is very big news now that Arlington National Cemetery is awash in scandal. Tombstones discarded, thrown into a stream. More than 200 graves mislabeled. Urns dumped.

This a few years after we learned that wounded warriors were living in squalor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“They might have thrown Joe’s old stone in that stream,’’ Maureen Dunn said. “Wouldn’t surprise me. The first stone was all wrong.’’

They gave Joe Dunn a headstone in Arlington National Cemetery. Maureen Dunn went down for the unveiling, years ago, and she saw that they had the dates and the country on the stone wrong.

She walked up to an admiral at the cemetery and said, “No wonder you can’t find him.’’

Then she walked away. She is more partial to a tree on Boston Common, with a plaque commemorating her husband. It’s on the Park Street side of the Common, a short stroll from when they met that spring night in 1963. She drives up from Randolph to stand beneath the tree, Joe’s tree.

“I go there, alone, and just think about Joe,’’ she says.

She became an activist because of the dead. She remains one because of the living.

Today, some young soldiers will take part in the POW-MIA race that Maureen Dunn has put on for 27 years. They are part of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, and she brings them up for the Boston Marathon every year, too.

A couple of months ago, Maureen Dunn hosted a bunch of young veterans from the Walter Reed amputees rehab unit for the Marathon. All of them are missing part of a leg or an arm or both. She always brings them to Joe Milano’s place, the Union Oyster House, the night before the Marathon and Joe Milano always picks up the tab.

On this night, though, a couple who were having dinner noticed the young soldiers as they made their way slowly into the restaurant.

“They were from Newport, in Rhode Island, the couple, and they were in their 30s,’’ Maureen Dunn said. “And they were just so moved by what they saw that they came up to me, and the husband says, ‘I would like to buy these men dinner.’ ’’

Maureen Dunn tried to tell the guy that she appreciated it but it would be too much.

“I don’t care what it costs,’’ the guy said, and handed Maureen Dunn his credit card.

“Run the card, Joe,’’ Maureen Dunn said.

Joe Milano said, “I can’t do this.’’

“Joe,’’ Maureen Dunn said, “you do enough. Run the card.’’

Joe Milano ran the card. The total was more than $2,000.

“The guy and his wife just went around the room and shook all these kids’ hands,’’ Maureen Dunn said, “and I’ve got to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And it told me that things have changed. Things have changed for the better.’’

She never got her Joe back. But she got something else back. And she realized it that night in the Union Oyster House.

She doesn’t need the stone at Arlington. She has her tree, on the Common, near the T stop where they met. And she knows that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who go off to wars they don’t start are now given the respect they always deserved.

This is what Maureen Dunn has done.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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