The First Veterans Day Without Dennis

He hid the scars, and brushed off her entreaties to tell people what happened on Aug. 13, 1969.

And last December, when Dennis DeLaire passed away after 47 years of accumulated hurt, Sharon DeLaire, his ex-wife and best friend, feared he took the story of those scars to the grave.

This Veterans Day will be Sharon’s first without Dennis since she met him in 1986; in the 30 intervening years, when they were married and then when they were estranged, she was with him on the 11th of every November.

If he wanted to go out for dinner, they’d go out for dinner. If he just wanted to talk, they’d talk.

“Veterans Day is about spending time with a veteran, no matter what they want to do,” she said. “If they want to just sit and talk, sit and talk with them. It’s about being there.”

Sharon, 58, first heard Dennis’s story when he took her to a restaurant on the Berlin Turnpike for their first date in 1986. What he told her was this: On Aug. 13, 1969 — his 21st birthday — Dennis was stationed with the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army in Quan Loi, Vietnam. That night, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops stormed and overran their post, but he stood his ground, he said, emptying his service rifle and lobbing grenades until a U.S. artillery round exploded nearby, throwing him into the air. The blast temporarily blinded him, he said, but he could feel North Vietnamese bullets and shrapnel thud into his thighs, back, stomach and chest.

He lay there for six hours, he said, until the assault was beaten back and a helicopter crew hauled him aboard. His limp, bloodied body was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, where he spent six months recovering. Shrapnel would remain in his shoulders for the rest of his life.

A few days after the battle, the paper in Dennis’s hometown of St. Regis Falls, N.Y., published a story describing his bravery. “Fragmentation flak caused serious wounds to [Dennis’s] heart, spine, colon and stomach area and the left lung,” it reads. “Members of the family yesterday received a citation and Purple Heart medal awarded to Pfc. DeLaire.”

When Sharon met Dennis in ’86, he was 38, thrice-married and thrice-divorced. Seventeen years after the firefight, he still carried the weight of the war.

Employers bolted when they heard his story, Sharon said, thinking only of the health care bills they’d have to foot. He sold real estate and designed kitchens and bathrooms, but struggled to find steady work.

“He basically had to be self-employed his whole life,” she said, “because who would hire him?”

The same night Dennis told her his story — their first date — he laid his cards on the table. He didn’t make much money, he said, just what he collected from disability and his real estate ventures.

“I respected that,” Sharon said, “not just because of his service, but because he told me his standing in life right there. He didn’t pretend to be a big shot, a CEO. He came right out with it, and said this is who I am and this is what I have to offer.”

They married that year, and had a son together. She saw the wounds that were visible — scars across his shoulders, back, thighs and stomach — and sensed the ones that weren’t: The Valium he took every day to blunt his paranoia. The knives he hid in the cabinets. One night, Dennis heard a noise outside the bedroom and crept to the door. He opened it, and a bathrobe Sharon had hung up to dry fell on him. He stabbed it five times.

Outwardly, Dennis, was a garrulous man, Sharon said, “always making jokes all the time, always laughing.”

“And one day I said, ‘Do you always have to make a joke out of everything? And I remember he said, ‘Sometimes that’s the only thing keeping you alive. What are you going to do, cry?’”

“Sometimes,” he told Sharon, “laughter is all you have in life.”

Their marriage came apart after 10 years, but they still saw each other every week and raised their son Tony together. They remained each other’s best friend.

“When you share your life with someone, there’s that comfort,” said Sharon, who lives in Newington. “You can wear what you want, you don’t have to wear makeup, because you know everything about each other, and there isn’t anything that’s going to change that.”

Tony grew up idolizing his dad, and though he’d seen what war had done to him, he came home one day from class at Manchester Community College and told Dennis he’d dropped out to join the Marines. He was 19.

Sharon remembered the fear that flitted across Dennis’ face. “That was the one time he didn’t joke. He said, ‘What are you, stupid? You want to end up like me?’”

Tony, now 30, works as a physical therapist with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton in California.

“I looked up to him as a hero,” Tony said by telephone.

“I wanted to mirror that. I knew I needed some growing up.”

When Tony was preparing to deploy to Iraq, Dennis dug up a stack of old photos. There were about 20 of them, each of a different GI, and he showed them to Tony one by one.

“I was like, ‘Alright, cool, I’ve never seen these before,’” Tony recalled. “And then he gathered them back up, and said those were all his friends that died.”

“It set my mind to the reality of it.”

Dennis took a crucifix off his old dog tags and gave it Tony, who wore it during two 13-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Tony returned from the Middle East, he understood what his father had been through, and his father him.

“I had my own demons,” Tony said, “and he still had his, no matter what he said. We helped each other out.”

There was an afternoon, years after Sharon and Dennis had separated, when she went to see him. She asked Dennis what he wanted to do. Shopping? Dinner?

No, he said. He just wanted to sit with her in the living room.

“He was just so happy with the life he had,” she recalled, “because he never felt he was supposed to live that long.”

But last November, a week before Thanksgiving, Dennis wasn’t returning Sharon’s calls, and she was growing worried.

She drove to his apartment in Manchester and tried the door. It was chained from the inside, but she opened it enough to see Dennis lying prostrate in the hallway. Sharon called an ambulance, and Dennis was hospitalized with a gastrointestinal bleed that she believes was the long-delayed consequence of injuries suffered 47 years earlier. By the end of his life, he was taking over 20 different medications every day, she said.

She was sure he’d make it through this, never doubting for a moment the fighter in him. She bought an apple crumb pie — Dennis’ favorite — for when he got out.

But one week after entering the hospital, Dennis went into cardiac arrest and passed away on Dec. 13, 2016, two days before Sharon’s 57th birthday. He was 68 years old.

Dennis also left behind two sons, Shawn and Keith, from his earlier marriages, and six grandchildren.

For all the years she knew him, Sharon had prodded Dennis to visit a school or talk to a reporter, and tell people what happened to him in Vietnam.

“No one’s going to believe me,” he’d tell her.

When he was gone, Sharon was left with the thought that no one would know of the sacrifices he wanted no credit for.

“I remember crying on the phone with my girlfriend, saying, ‘Nobody knows!’”

On Saturday, Sharon will spend Veterans Day with Dennis, beside his grave at the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown.

Dennis was still asking Sharon to remarry him a month before he died, and she never stopped loving him, she said. The apple crumb pie is still in her freezer.

“I didn’t want anything from Dennis. I didn’t say drive me here, buy me this, take me there. I just wanted him,” Sharon said. “I was so proud of him.”

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