For five years, every time Ross Maddocks saw Sarah Sherman McGrail coming he’d turn around and head the other way.

Maddocks knew that McGrail was on a mission to interview as many Korean and Vietnam war veterans from Boothbay Harbor and surrounding towns as she could, and he did not want to talk. He didn’t want to relive his days on a river patrol boat in Vietnam more than 40 years ago, when “one minute you’re talking to a guy and the next minute he’s lost an arm.”

But after dodging her on street corners or at the post office for so long, Maddocks finally changed his mind. He found McGrail to be sincere, straightforward and persistent. Very persistent.

“She told me she didn’t want (to write about) what we see on TV. She wanted to write what actually happened, what we did over there,” said Maddocks, 77, of Boothbay Harbor. “I was convinced what she was doing would not glorify war. She knows we’re all hurting, she’s sensitive to that.”

Maddocks opened up to McGrail and told his story for her new two-volume work, “Looking Back: A History of Boothbay Region’s Veterans During the Korean and Vietnam Wars.” McGrail, 46, spent eight years gathering 228 stories told by veterans from Southport, Boothbay Harbor and Boothbay. She began her work documenting the stories of local veterans more than 20 years ago, and previously had published two books about the region’s World War II veterans. Counting family and friends of veterans, she estimates she’s done more than 3,000 interviews. Her latest books, which are self-published, are due to arrive in a few Midcoast-area stores soon. Orders are also being taken online.

McGrail now wants to thank the veterans who found the time and strength to relive wartime experiences. She’s planning a “Welcome Home” party for the veterans she’s written about, on Saturday – over Memorial Day weekend – at Southport Town Hall. She’ll be decorating the gymnasium-sized main hall as if it’s for a USO dance, and displaying pictures and other memorabilia from the veterans. McGrail has invited more than 500 people personally. But she says anyone is welcome.

APPRECIATING HER PASSION

Ross Maddocks didn’t want to relive his days on a river patrol boat in Vietnam, but changed his mind and spoke with Sarah Sherman McGrail. He's glad he did.

Ross Maddocks didn’t want to relive his days on a river patrol boat in Vietnam, but changed his mind and spoke with Sarah Sherman McGrail. He’s glad he did.

Veterans say it’s McGrail who deserves the thanks, for preserving such personal pieces of history for three small coastal Maine towns and for letting veterans know someone cares about their stories.

“I know it took her a good five years to catch me, so I can’t imagine how long it took her to get all the others,” said Maddocks. “Hats off to Sarah. After all the stories she’s heard, I’m surprised she’s not white-haired from it. She’s a good girl for doing it.”

Brian Rego of East Boothbay, 64, also was hesitant to talk about his time in Vietnam, so he really appreciated not only the time McGrail has put in, but her delicate and comforting approach.

“It really wasn’t like interviewing. It was more about getting you to say stuff on your own,” said Rego, who served on a helicopter crew in Vietnam as a teenager. “The first time she came to talk to me she was settin’ on the steps of my workshop, wearing sandals. By the time she left, her feet were sunburnt.”

McGrail is a seventh-generation resident of Southport Island and works as a legal advocate for New Hope For Women, a domestic violence agency that serves the midcoast area. Her first thoughts about what veterans had gone through began when she was growing up, as she realized that she had not heard her father, Maurice Sherman, say much about his service in North Africa and Italy during World War II.

Brian Rego Courtesy photo

Brian Rego, who served on a helicopter crew in Vietnam as a teenager, contributed his story, then helped McGrail by copy reading her books. Courtesy photo

“We knew he was in the Army, and we all twirled our spaghetti with a spoon because he learned to do that in Rome, but he really didn’t talk much about it,” McGrail said. “You look at his medals, four battle stars, and that means he was in four major campaigns. So it just hit me that I should write it all down. After he finally told me his story I began to think, what if nobody has written these stories down?”

She was thinking of her neighbors, the families she knew.

McGrail started her research with a list of veterans’ names on a wall in the Southport Memorial Library. Soon, people all over the area were helping her find veterans – men and women – to talk to. Some she sought out wouldn’t talk at all, some a little, some a lot. McGrail wrote 228 stories in her “Looking Back” books, but lists the names of more than 430 veterans from the three towns who served in the military during the years of, and between, the Korean and Vietnam wars.

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Although he didn’t want to talk at first and avoided her for years, Maddocks was one of the veterans who shared a lot of what he saw and did in the military. The 29 pages devoted to his story feature pictures from Maddocks’ time in the Navy in Vietnam and very specific details of his service. There’s a snapshot of the coxswain’s flat, the area where Maddocks stood when driving a river patrol boat in Vietnam, for instance. Other photos show Vietnamese villages and villagers, Maddocks with orphans near the Cambodian border, and Maddocks’ bent rifle, damaged during a battle. There’s a picture of Maddocks, standing at attention, to receive a medal from Vietnamese officials.

Maddocks joined the Navy when he was 17, in 1956, and served for more than 30 years. He said he hopes that sharing his story will help illustrate to younger people “why we don’t want to go to war” as a nation.

While being interviewed for this story, Maddocks mentioned that one time he was injured while on patrol. He said a flak jacket saved his life, and it was easier for him to list the parts of his body that weren’t riddled with shrapnel than the areas where he was hit.

“Anyone who serves in a war is never completely the same,” he said. “You have memories that will always bother you, that you’ll never forget.”

GETTING ‘CAUGHT UP’ IN STORIES

Layout 1McGrail hopes that people in other towns hear about her books and decide to chronicle veterans’ stories too. She’s more than willing to share her methods, including the questionnaires she sent to people and how to check various government service records.

“It is the least we owe our veterans after the sacrifices they have made for all of us,” McGrail said.

Rego not only contributed his story to McGrail’s effort, but also helped her by copy reading her books. He found himself getting “caught up” in the stories, from people he’s known all his life, recalling experiences they seldom shared.

Rego is especially glad that McGrail has recorded the stories of so many Vietnam veterans, since they often came home to a hostile reception from the public.

“There was a lot of name-calling when we came back,” he said. “But all these stories are part of history.”

And thanks to McGrail, in these three small Maine towns, they won’t soon be forgotten.