Family of the officer who inspired John Wayne’s ‘Green Berets’ character shares his past
The Florida Times-Union March 19, 2023
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacklyn Healy’s husband of 69 years was the late Maj. Gen. Michael “Iron Mike” Healy, an Army Special Forces legend and inspiration for the tough, intrepid John Wayne character in the 1968 movie “The Green Berets.”
She worried about his safety when he went to Korea, where his exploits earned him the "Iron Mike" name. She worried about him when he went on his five tours to Vietnam, where he spent more than eight years leading men into battle. She made regular, multiple moves, overseas and across America, as his career path rose. She performed all the social functions required of an Army officer's wife.
And she, often on her own, corralled a growing family of six boys: feeding them, disciplining them, getting them from one practice to another, moving with them to yet another new home in yet another new place.
This week, Jacklyn Healy, 92, who is in hospice care at her home in Jacksonville, had a ready answer when asked the secret to raising six boys under such conditions.
"You know, I really loved my boys," she said. "I enjoyed them."
What she accomplished was remarkable, said Sean Healy, 68, son number four who lives in Jacksonville. But he wants the world to know that his mother knew she was in good company. "She used to always say, 'The wives deserve a medal.'"
But oh, she was particularly tough, her sons say.
In his parents' living room, just off the bedroom where Jacklyn Healy rested, Sean lifted up his shirt to show a visitor a large swath of scars across his torso. It's the result of him playing with matches at age 5 in Germany when his clothes caught fire and flames rose higher than his face.
A brother raced to get Mom, who ran to Sean, then put out the flames with her bare hands.
He repeats: "She put it out with her bare hands."
The wife of Iron Mike was that tough.
A marriage that lasted 69 years Michael Healy, the son of a police detective, left his hometown of Chicago and enlisted in the Army as a private in 1945, two months before the Japanese surrender. The Army sent him to post-war Japan, which is where he met 18-year-old Jacklyn Maddrix, whose father was a U.S. prosecutor at Japanese war-crimes trials.
They were at a function and Healy, a young lieutenant, asked her to dance. Such attention was not new to her, said Sean. "She was a young girl, went to dances, a beautiful woman. All the officers wanted to dance with her, court her. Several proposed to her."
Jacklyn said she was drawn, though, to this particular young officer. "He was so knowledgeable, very knowledgeable, and he was so gentle," she said.
His moves on the dance floor didn't hurt either.
"Absolutely," she said. "We were good dancers. We appreciated each other."
They were married 69 years until his death in 2018, at 92.
Providing comfort to others
During his 35-year career, Healy earned three Distinguished Service Medals, two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, seven Bronze Stars with Valor, two Purple Hearts and many more honors.
"I worried about him constantly," Jacklyn said.
Her youngest son, Pat, who's 63 and lives in the Chicago area, says she never burdened her sons with those fears, however.
"I never felt that she expressed her concern," he said during a phone conversation. "I know she was afraid about dad being at war, but she kept it to herself. She didn't express it to me."
Her second son, Mike, who is 71 and lives in Jacksonville, has a lasting memory of that ever-present worry. "Sometimes those military cars that drove around where we lived, and stopped at the houses of Gold Star wives, they would sort of pass our house, and she would be at the window."
She made a point to comfort the wives of soldiers killed in battle — often forming friendships, sustained by regular telephone calls, that lasted decades. That, she felt, was one of her obligations.
"Our phones used to ring really late at night," Sean said. "When somebody's husband died, they'd call my mother, and she'd comfort them the best she could, but … "
'A great warrior'
In 2015 Maj. Gen. Healy was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the Special Forces Regiment, the Green Berets' equivalent of a hall of fame. At the ceremony in Jacksonville, Healy said he thought each day of the men he lost in battle.
"They gave me their hearts and a lot of them their lives," he said. "I never forget them. Every night I speak to them."
Mike said their father discouraged his sons from joining the military. "He was a warrior, and a great warrior, but he didn't want us to go through battle and suffer," he said.
He said his father never shared what he went through in battle, never told stories of his heroics or the horrors he saw. He did, however, praise his soldiers, and was clearly profoundly affected by losing any of them.
"I remember him saying, 'I want you to do something constructive,'" Mike said. "The addendum was, 'Not destructive, like I have to do.' He was glad to fight for his country, especially being in charge of boys he could protect. He was a great commander, and they loved him. But he didn't want us to go."
Military moves and stress
Life as a military family meant constant upheaval. The boys were always the new kids at school, and Jacklyn had to regularly oversee those moves and settle in a new spot. The family lived in France, Germany and Turkey, and in numerous spots in the U.S.
"We lived in four different houses in North Carolina," Sean said. "We lived in Northern Virginia two different times. We lived in Maryland, three different houses. We lived in Kansas. We lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We lived in Kentucky with the 101st Airborne."
The family often lived in base housing but had to move out each time Healy was sent to war. Son Mike remembers his mother's prized piano sitting in each new living room, surrounded by boxes. She's lived in 30 different houses since getting married, he figures.
"I think she was stronger than my father," her third son, Tim, 70, said over the phone from Toccoa, Ga. "I say that with tongue in cheek, but she dealt with just about everything a mother can deal with, on her own, while my father was doing his duty in the Army."
Tim was one of three sons who were injured in a car wreck caused by a drunken driver, suffering numerous broken bones that left him in an Army hospital for more than three months. Another son sustained some brain damage.
And though their father was able to return home earlier than expected from Vietnam, it was their mother who was there at the worst time, who had to carry that stress for weeks.
Taking in strays
Michael Healy joined the Army as an enlisted man and made his way up the ranks to general. And while Jacklyn, unlike many other officers' wives, never went to college, she was more than able to hold her own in conversation and in her obligations as a general's wife, her sons say.
"There were some snooty officers' wives who went to snooty finishing schools up North, but they had a lot of respect for her," Sean said. "My mother had a lot of class."
She is an accomplished classical pianist and often, as the day wound down, would lull her sons to sleep by playing piano in the living room: Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven.
She's always been an animal lover, and at home earlier this week, her turtle, St. Francis, rested in an enclosure in her bedroom. Meanwhile, caregiver Jennifer Vess' little dog snuggled at her side in bed.
In separate conversations, her sons told of their lasting memories of their mother's care for animals, particularly how she would feed countless stray dogs and cats while the family was living in Turkey.
"I took them in," the general's wife said, "all of them."