A Veteran’s Greatest Gift
DRACUT -- Scott McKiel paced by the entrance door of the Merrimack Room at Lenzi’s on Saturday. It was shortly before 2 p.m. and his father, Bob McKiel, was being escorted to his own surprise birthday party. The family tricked the 90-year-old into thinking he was going to attend a luncheon.
More than 50 guests gathered to not only wish Bob a happy birthday, but to watch him receive the Korean Ambassador for Peace Medal. The award is an expression of appreciation from the Korean government to American servicemen and women who served in the Korean War.
Scott let everyone know his father was very close. He wanted them to prepare.
“Not too loud,” Glenn McKiel, one of Scott’s brothers, said in a booming voice. “He’s 90, unless anyone knows CPR.”
The crowd laughed. At each roundtable were centerpieces with old photos of Bob, of Dracut, in his Air Force uniform. “Happy 90th Birthday Bob” read a huge banner in the corner of the room, alongside a vintage photo of the Korean War veteran posing next to an aircraft. He had gone from serving as an engine mechanic to an aircraft mechanic.
The white doors opened at 1:51 p.m. and in ambled Bob with his cane. Accompanied by his grandson, Tim McKiel, and Tim’s wife, Crystal McKiel, Bob stopped in his tracks and scanned his eyes over the sea of family and friends. His lips trembled and his eyes grew moist from behind his glasses.
“Take it all in,” one woman said.
After making his rounds and embracing many guests, Bob was brought to the front of the room. Scott stood at a podium and jokingly called his father’s celebration the “30th anniversary of his 60th birthday.”
“He has taught us what work ethic is. He has shown us what integrity is,” Scott, of Dracut, said. “He has shown us what commitment is to family, to community, to business. It all wraps into one.”
According to Scott, his father never spoke much about his service but kept many documents from that time in his life. This proved helpful for the next surprise.
Dracut Veterans’ Service Officer Jeffrey C. Hollett came forward to present Bob with the Korean Ambassador for Peace Medal. In December Hollett launched a quest to find local men and women who served in the war to honor them as part of a partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services and the Consulate of the Republic of Korea. To be eligible, veterans must have served during the Korean War from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953. Bob was the latest veteran to receive the honor.
“Most medals are earned for wartime service, especially our higher medals like your Bronze Star,” Hollett told the seated Bob, who peered up at him. “And as Scott said, you may not have spoken a lot about your wartime service in Korea, but I served 5 1/2 years in Korea during peacetime and I know personally that your legacy in Korea and what you accomplished -- though at times may have been some of your darkest days during the military service -- it had an impact. It made a difference in thousands and thousands of people’s lives.”
Bob lowered his head and shook with emotion. The medal was placed around his neck.
“I guess I can’t lie about my age anymore,” Bob quipped after he was handed the mic.
Several of the guests wiped away tears as Bob thanked everyone for coming. There’s one person who was not here but was here, he said, referring to his late wife, K. Lorraine.
“I can’t begin to tell, or explain, my feelings. ... I just can’t believe it,” Bob said. “I thank everybody. Everybody, for being here on this day.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.