Veterans of 2 wars connect through Vet to Vet Maine program
Portland Press Herald, Maine November 13, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — At 97, some memories of Philip H. Levinsky’s long life are becoming harder for him to recall.
But as he tells friends about his service during World War II, even the smallest details are crystal clear: the tan summer suit he wore when he reported for active duty, the intense Texas heat during basic training, the way the waves rocked the ship that carried him to the shores of France.
Those stories delight Vietnam veteran Sam Kelley, who regularly visits Levinsky through Vet to Vet Maine, a nonprofit that pairs together veterans who need a friend or mentor. Over the past five years, the men have spent hundreds of hours together talking about their lives, sharing meals and trading jokes at the assisted living facility in Portland where Levinsky lives with his wife of 73 years.
Levinsky was stationed in Europe in 1945, and Kelley’s service brought him to the jungles of Vietnam in 1969, but their experiences bind them together in a way that only fellow veterans can truly understand.
“He’s a great guy. I’m glad I got to know him. When I was 20, he would have been tough competition,” Levinsky said of Kelley as he reclined in an armchair in his living room, surrounded by photos of four generations of his family. The WWII veteran hat he fastidiously wears every day sat on the seat of the walker near his feet.
Kelley, 78, has volunteered with Vet to Vet Maine since 2017. He was already active with post-traumatic stress disorder support groups and attended annual reunions with Vietnam veterans, but he jumped at the chance to connect with fellow veterans in need of companionship. He has also been paired with other WWII and Korean War veterans.
As the country pauses to honor Veterans Day, he said he would like even more veterans to make that kind of connection. Vet to Vet Maine currently has a waiting list of more than 50 people waiting for a match and needs more volunteers.
Maggie Catanese, the program’s executive director, said they have 126 volunteers from across the state, from different branches of the military and from different conflicts, but they always find support and understanding in each other, she said.
“Studies have shown that a veteran is more likely to open up to another veteran,” she said.
Many veterans who are matched with a volunteer are older, but Catanese would like to include younger veterans who could benefit from the program.
Beyond companionship, volunteers know how to navigate the Veterans Administration to make sure veterans are getting all of their benefits. Kelley helped Levinsky’s family access the benefits he needed.
“Sam has been a good advocate for my father. He’s a friend who will talk to him on a consistent basis, and he’s very kind,” said Eric Levinsky, one of Philip Levinsky’s three sons. “Sam is somebody who can get things done. If you do work with the Veterans Administration, it can be extraordinarily difficult and frustrating. The veterans certainly aren’t being taken care of by their government, so outreach like this is a breath of fresh air.”
A lifetime of service
Levinsky and Kelley both grew up in Portland, but their paths didn’t cross until decades after the wars.
Levinsky was 12 when he started working at Levinsky’s, the store his father opened on Congress Street in 1919. While at Deering High School, he participated in a program for students interested in military service and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as graduation approached. He was called for active duty on his birthday, Oct. 6, 1944.
“But I was lying in bed with chickenpox, so I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry,” Levinsky said.
When he got called up again the following April, he was well enough to report to a base in Devens, Mass. He dressed up for the occasion in a tan gaberdine suit, shoes with a lot of detail work and a felt porkpie hat. The sergeant immediately put him to work in his civilian clothes digging a ditch.
“You can imagine what that beautiful suit and shoes looked like digging in the mud,” he said. “After, I wrapped the suit up, muddy as it was, and sent it home to my mother. Imagine how she felt looking at that.”
After basic training in Texas, Levinsky was sent to France aboard the USS General C.H. Muir as an airplane mechanic. One of his tasks was to tighten bolts on B-17 bombers, then secure them with wire so they didn’t shake loose.
“If I was one rank lower, I would have been the enemy,” he said jokingly.
He wore dog tags marked with an “H” for Hebrew and was told to take them off if he was ever captured.
Levinsky was later stationed at a German Luftwaffe base, where he recalls the barracks had square bathtubs that seemed almost like swimming pools. During a visit with Kelley, he described a trip through Europe in a box car — Levinsky’s stories about the less-than-desirable conditions prompted laughter from his visitors — and learning how to drive a Jeep in five minutes so he could escort a plane on the runway.
After 22 months in the Army, Levinsky returned to Portland to work in his father’s store. He turned down a $50 monthly stipend from the military because he didn’t want charity, he said. He went on to run the store, which expanded from military surplus to a popular clothing store. He married Elizabeth in 1950, and they raised three sons. They now have eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He is known on Munjoy Hill for his generosity and kindness, his son said.
Eric Levinsky said his father has always been proud of his military service and told stories about his time in France and Germany “all the time.”
“He still certainly enjoys it when people thank him for his service,” he said.
Connecting with veterans
Kelley, who lives in Scarborough, joined the Army after graduating from college in 1967. After basic training and officer candidate school, he signed up for airborne school because he wanted the extra $95 a month, he said.
He was sent to Vietnam in May 1969 with the 82nd Airborne, then moved to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. During the year he spent in Vietnam as an infantry platoon officer, he said he was often sent into the jungle for five or six days at a time, engaging in 50 to 75 intense firefights.
The worst day was Dec. 18, 1969, he said, when Pfc. Bill McCarron, a machine gunner from Queens, N.Y., was killed during a firefight in Hau Nghia Province. Even 54 years later, Kelley’s voice chokes with emotion as he describes that moment.
After leaving the Army in December 1970, he came home and married his wife, Jean, raised three children and started his business, MBI Trailers. Decades later, he started attending veteran reunions, where his former lieutenant first talked to him about PTSD. Kelley was later diagnosed and turned to his fellow veterans for support.
“Being a veteran plays such an important role in my life,” he said.
Kelley said joining Vet to Vet Maine was one of the most important things he has done to cope with PTSD. His wife has seen his PTSD improve over the years he has spent visiting with veterans.
“He gets as much out of it as the person he is visiting,” Jean Kelley said. “It’s an opportunity to share things that a lot of people don’t want to hear.”
(c)2023 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
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