Hillsboro-Deering High School baseball team extends involvement with Operation Hat Trick beyond the baseball field

Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2015
The New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery was nearly silent mid-morning Saturday, but not for all of the visitors.

“I still hear the rockets coming in, right here,” said Bob Williams, a Vietnam veteran, as he tapped his head with his right hand.

Williams, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, briefly broke away from a group of veterans and volunteers cleaning the area near the memorial walkway Saturday to share his stories with the Hillsboro-Deering High School baseball team. The group of teenage boys stood attentively by the circle of flags at the cemetery while Williams spoke of the 1968 Tet Offensive and his reception upon his return to the United States.

“I love talking about it now because it’s healing to me,” he said.

The baseball players – members of a team that is focusing part of its season on honoring New Hampshire veterans – seemed to appreciate Williams’s candor as well.

Dressed in their baseball jerseys and camouflage Operation Hat Trick baseball hats, the Hillboro-Deering Hillcats skipped an afternoon of practice to spend the day learning about and interacting with New Hampshire veterans.

Hillsboro-Deering is one of 61 high schools participating in the Operation Hat Trick New Hampshire High School Initiative, a program in its second year.

Operation Hat Trick was founded in 2007 by Dot Sheehan, an athletic director at the University of New Hampshire, to answer a question: “What is the one thing most wanted by head-wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?”

The answer, she found, was hats.

Proceeds from the hats – baseball caps with college and team logos – support various charities, including Walter Reed National Medical Military Center, the Wounded Warrior Bonfire Project, Easter Seals/Veterans Count and UNH’s Northeast Passage.

This season is the first that Hillsboro-Deering is participating in the initiative.

Steve Mello, director of physical education and sports at Concord High School, started the high school program a year ago. Dedicated to two Navy Seals, Nate Hardy and Mike Koch, Operation Hat Trick has local origins. Hardy’s father, Steve Hardy, is a professor at UNH.

“It just so happens that Steve Hardy was my adviser in college,” Mello said. “I get this idea, we can do this in high schools.”

Over the two years of the high school initiative’s history, about $120,000 has been raised for the various charities supported by Operation Hat Trick, Mello said.

“It’s a win-win for the kids, it’s a win-win for the people who receive the services as well,” he said.

The program requires participating members to purchase OHT hats, wear them at a game during a designated awareness week in May, invite veterans to games that week and educate the student-athletes on the mission.

“And I said, you know, why stop there?” said Mike Donnell, who is in his second year as head coach of the Hillcats.

Saturday was dedicated to visiting the cemetery and the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, accompanied by homework assignments from Donnell. The boys were instructed to learn and write about veterans they met that day or about military traditions, such as a table-setting for one person to symbolize the country’s prisoners of war and those missing in action.

“It’s to teach the team a little bit outside of baseball,” Donnell said. “It’s a great educational day for them.”

None of the high school baseball players, Donnell said, are going to be professional athletes. But someday they are likely to be parents, mentors or coaches.

“We may not have the best record on paper, but it’s the character of what they do off the field,” he said.

Last season, the team’s record was 0-16. This year, the team is 0-4.

But Saturday – a day not a part of the team’s regular schedule – would hopefully be a highlight for the athletes.

“These memories will hopefully last a lifetime,” Donnell said, walking through the cemetery.

Tyler Wood and Alec Zullo, both 17-year-old seniors on the team, decided Williams would be the person they would sit down with to learn his story and give a presentation on this season.

“It just means a lot to come to these places,” Zullo said Saturday. “It’s really amazing.”

Both boys – who listed numerous family members that are veterans – said they had visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., as eighth-grade students, but had never been to the cemetery in Boscawen before Saturday morning.

At the cemetery, Williams began telling the team about his experiences as a veteran of Vietnam, memories that he said he would share in more detail with Wood and Zullo at a later date.

A resident of Manchester since 1980, Williams said he returned home in 1969 to a country that did not support its veterans. The Vietnam War, Williams told the boys, tore the U.S. apart.

For years after his return, he drank and used drugs, and he considered suicide at one point.

“I didn’t really care,” he said.

In 1988, Williams said he stopped drinking cold turkey. And in the years since, he has become able to discuss his experiences – what he saw, how it affected him, and how the war affected the U.S. and his fellow veterans.

Williams is currently the vice president of the Central New Hampshire chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and visits high schools, talking to students.

“I can go on and on and on,” he said. “It’s good to do what we do. . . . It’s healing to us, too.”

The week of May 11 is when the Hillsboro-Deering Hillcats and all participating athletic programs will wear their Operation Hat Trick baseball hats to their games where they will honor veterans. Veterans are invited and encouraged to attend the high school games that week.

The team has four home games next month: May 11, 15, 26 and 29.

In the first year of the program, 12 veterans threw out ceremonial first pitches at a Concord High School game, while more veterans – some in their 20s, some in their 80s – attended the game.

“So many positive things that came out of it that we didn’t expect,” Mello said.

The Concord High School baseball team will honor veterans at a baseball game May 11 and at a softball game May 13. The baseball team will honor a notable Concord veteran that week: Blake Marston.

Marston, a 31-year-old Navy SEAL, died in January in a parachute accident. His father, Bill Marston, a former interim athletic director in Concord, will attend the May 11 game to represent Blake. The team is excited to honor Blake, Mello said.

All veterans are welcome to participate and attend the games, he said. “We like to have as many as we can,” he said.

“We use it as an educational piece,” Mello said of the OHT high school initiative. “I think our kids got a whole lot of it last year.”

Donnell, who has been coaching baseball and basketball for three decades, said Saturday’s events and participation in the Operation Hat Trick program extend beyond this spring athletic season.

“I know that when they leave this day, they won’t be the same kids as when they arrived this morning,” he said.

(Susan Doucet can be reached at 369-3309, sdoucet@cmonitor.com or on Twitter