James Gallagher of Perry Township was wounded in action as a combat medic during the Vietnam War. He was blown from the vehicle in which he was riding. His body still carries shrapnel from the blast.
When he came home from Vietnam in the late 1960s, it seemed to him few people cared.
"When I got back, we didn't have help resuming our lives," he recalled. "We weren't welcomed home."
That feeling of isolation prompted a mission to make sure other veterans didn't have to endure a similar homecoming, and provided Gallagher motivation to join organizations open to veterans.
His decades-long service to country and community — inAmVets, American Legion, and VFW, among other groups — earned Gallagher the title of 2013 Veteran of the Year.
"He changed the status quo to provide assistance to other veterans in need and help them transition back to civilian life," said Robert Barson in a nominating application from the Frank W. Adams Post 124 of AmVets that he filed with Greater Canton Veterans Council, which honors the Veteran of the Year, "while simultaneously honoring their past military service."
A panel of past winners chose Gallagher for the award, which will be given to him at 11 a.m. Monday — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — during a Veterans Day ceremony at Westbrook Veterans Memorial Park in Canton.
"I've been familiar with others winning the award," smiled Gallagher, who has served for the last seven years as president of the Greater Canton Veterans Council. "It's one of the finest honors. It makes you aware that other people know you've done something for veterans."
Gallagher comes from a family accustomed to military service. His father served in the Army, two brothers also served in the Army, and a third brother was in the Marine Corps.
As an Army medic, Gallagher was wounded while trying to tend to others during enemy shelling of an ammunition dump near Da Nang in 1967.
"The explosion toppled the Jeep over and I got hit by shrapnel," said Gallagher, who returned to the U.S. after his recovery and was discharged in 1968.
A life-long mechanic who worked with his father before his military service, Gallagher returned home to run Gallagher's auto repair and body shop on Cleveland Avenue SW with his brother, Carl. "I run the repair side and my brother has the body shop," said Gallagher, whose son, Michael, is operating the auto repair shop while Gallagher recovers from a stroke.
The first veterans organization Gallagher joined was VFW Post 4120 in Minerva. Later he was a charter member of Army Navy Union No. 272 across Cleveland Avenue from Gallagher's auto repair, in a building where he later helped found AmVets Post 124.
Page 2 of 3 - For the last 15 years Gallagher has served as commander of Post 124.
Gallagher is a life member of Army Navy Union No. 150, and also of the Disabled American Veterans. He is a member of VFW Post 3747 and American Legion Post 44.
In addition, Gallagher is Ohio's 16th District commander of AmVets.
"Essentially, he's a member of all the veterans organization there are," said Melvin "Mel" Schlabach, vice president of Greater Canton Veterans Council who is acting as president while Gallagher recovers his health. "He's been extremely active in veterans affairs."
Over the years, Gallagher has helped plan and stage numerous Memorial Day parades and Veterans Day events. He has served on flag ceremony committees, helping to decorate veterans' graves for holidays.
"Jim receives no monetary compensation for his efforts to honor and help his fellow veterans," said Barson, who served in the Marine Corps from 1966-1970, in nominating Gallagher for Veteran of the Year. "He tirelessly serves the veteran community simply because there is a need."
Gallagher's family also serves. His wife, Bonnie, is finance officer of the AmVets Post 124 Auxiliary, of which their daughter, Shannon, is president. Their son, Michael, is finance officer of Sons of AmVets Post 124.
COMING TO TERMS
Years ago, Gallagher's family also helped him deal with feelings that lingered from his military service in Vietnam. His wife and children took him to see "the wall" — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The peaceful setting, in which flowers and letters were left at the wall, lifted a troubled spirit, said Gallagher's wife.
"It was the most calm and quiet place I'd ever been," she said. "There were tons of people, but you could hear a pin drop."
And in the silence, her husband found a mission in life.
"After that, I felt I would do something to make sure everyone felt like that — calm — when they came home from service," said Gallagher. "I hope I have. I hope that whatever I've done and the attitude I've taken has brought peace of mind to other veterans."
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The Greater Canton Veterans Council will present its Veteran of the Year award to James Gallagher of Perry Township at 11 a.m. Monday at Westbrook Veterans Memorial Park on 13th Street NW at Harrison Avenue.
Speakers will include Canton Mayor William J. Healy II; State Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton; and State Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township.
Timken High School Army Junior ROTC will post the colors, with an invocation given by chaplain John Stocker. The National Anthem will be sung by Bob Cairns. Taps will be performed by David Vandegrift and a rifle salute will be provided by the American Legion Honor Guard.
Page 3 of 3 - Following the services, refreshments will be served at American Legion Post 44 at 1633 Cleveland Ave. NW.