For most of his life, Falmouth resident Donal Staples Sr. didn’t often talk about his time in the U.S. Navy. But as he grew older, that began to change.

Donal Staples Sr., a veteran who has recovered from COVID-19, shows his service medals after receiving them for service in World War II and Korea. Staples received the medals from Donald Letellier, left, a certified nursing assistant, and Timothy Leach, a respiratory therapist at the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough. Photo courtesy of Maine Veterans

“When you’re in your 90s, you think back a lot over your life,” said his daughter, Sandra Staples-Bortner of Washington state.

His son, Donal Staples Jr., also of Falmouth, noted that “as he got older, he realized he was missing something, some recognition.”

The elder Staples, 92, lives in the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough. He tested positive for COVID-19 on April 13 after an outbreak in the home prompted widespread testing. After being moved to a special ward for coronavirus patients, Staples was isolated in his room for over a month. Staples Jr. hasn’t seen his father except through a window since the end of February. The isolation has taken its toll.

Two of Staples Sr.’s best friends in the home died of COVID-19, as did his roommate.

“He doesn’t realize it,” Staples Jr. said. “He just knows (they’re) gone.”

Of the 34 residents of the home who have tested positive for COVID-19, 17 have recovered and 14 died of the infection. Three resident recovered from COVID-19, but died of other causes. A total of 101 residents have tested negative.

Donal Staples Sr. served aboard the USS Chandeleur in 1945. Photo courtesy of the Navy

Staples Sr. was lucky – he never showed the typical COVID-19 respiratory symptoms. However, his son said, the disease and precautions taken to contain it exacerbated his dementia and depression.

The idea to award Staples Sr. his overdue service medals came from his daughter and her husband. They thought it might cheer him up – and they were right.

“I was surprised at how well it worked,” Staples Jr. said.

To get the medals, Staples Jr. sent his father’s military records to his sister and her husband. Her husband researched the medals he was eligible to receive, and ordered them from the military’s online ordering system. They sent them to Staples Jr., who delivered them to the home.

No family members could attend the ceremony because of strict quarantine rules, so on June 2, Staples-Bortner and her husband gathered with their family, including two  great-grandkids, via Zoom to celebrate Staples Sr.

A certified nursing assistant and a respiratory therapist who work at the home, both veterans themselves, awarded him the World War II American Campaign Medal, the World War II Asiatic Pacific Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the National Defense Service Medal – Korean War.

Because of his worsening dementia, Staples Sr. could not be interviewed to talk about the medals or recount his war stories. However, in 2015, Staples-Bortner sat down with her father to record some of his memories.

In March 1945, Staples Sr. served aboard the USS Chandeleur, a seaplane tender, at Kerama Retto, a small group of islands near Okinawa, Japan. It was there that the Chandeleur’s planes took part in the sinking of Japanese submarine I-8 a day before the invasion of Okinawa.

Staples Sr. grew up fishing for lobster off the coast of Brant Rock, Massachusetts. That  experience qualified him to run his own 35-foot rearming boat at the age of 17. According to Staples Sr., he once intentionally rammed his boat into a disabled seaplane to prevent it from hitting a moored plane with its propellers running. Staples Sr. received a commendation for his quick thinking, but it never got through to his Captain. The family was unable to find any record of the incident.

After World War II ended, Staples Sr. stayed in the Naval Reserves. In 1951 he was called to serve on the USS Salerno Bay. After completing training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Staples Sr. spent several months in unknown locations aboard the aircraft carrier.

According to the family, Staples Sr. was never given his service medals, which was not uncommon at the time, and he never sought them himself.

But, after surviving COVID-19 and being isolated for two months, they thought a pinning ceremony might be exactly what he needed to raise his spirits.

The gathering was meaningful to Staples Sr., according to his son. Staples Jr. said that given his dementia, it’s unclear how much of it his father retained, but his father was visibly proud in the moment.

“My dad remained quite stoic,” Staples-Bortner said. Her dad’s military service was “a highlight of his life.”

After the ceremony, according to Staples-Bortner, her father said: “It was an honor just to be allowed to serve.”


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