Still full of life, Jerry Lavigne honored for his service decades after fighting in Korea

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard. places the medal from South Korea honoring Jerry Lavigne as an Ambassador of Peace as his daughter, Ann Goulbourne, looks on at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2024.

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard. places the medal from South Korea honoring Jerry Lavigne as an Ambassador of Peace as his daughter, Ann Goulbourne, looks on at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (left) during his tap dancing days.

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (left) during his tap dancing days. COURTESY—

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (right) during his tap dancing days.

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (right) during his tap dancing days. COURTESY—

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard, shakes Jerry Lavigne’s hand after he was awarded a medal as an Ambassador of Peace at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2024.

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard, shakes Jerry Lavigne’s hand after he was awarded a medal as an Ambassador of Peace at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard, places the medal from South Korea honoring Jerry Lavigne at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24.

Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard, places the medal from South Korea honoring Jerry Lavigne at the Pleasant View ceremony on Saturday afternoon, February 24. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Jerry Lavigne gets a hug from his brother, Conrad, at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24.

Jerry Lavigne gets a hug from his brother, Conrad, at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Jerry Lavigne at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24, 2024.

Jerry Lavigne at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

 Jerry Lavigne leads the group in the Pledge of Allegiance at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24, 2024.

Jerry Lavigne leads the group in the Pledge of Allegiance at his medal ceremony at Pleasant View Retirement Home on Saturday, February 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (left) in 1954 when he was in South Korea.

A photo of Jerry Lavigne (left) in 1954 when he was in South Korea. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A photo of Jerry Lavigne in 1954 when he was in South Korea.

A photo of Jerry Lavigne in 1954 when he was in South Korea. COURTESY

By RAY DUCKLER

Monitor columnist

Published: 02-27-2024 3:30 PM

Modified: 03-01-2024 12:04 PM


Jerry Lavigne bowed slightly to receive his medal, draped around his neck like an official presenting gold at the Olympics, leading to a handshake and a two-minute speech that seamlessly mixed laughter with tears.

Lavigne smiled when he spoke at the Pleasant View Retirement Community on Saturday, thanking family and friends who attended a service honoring him as an Ambassador of Peace by the South Korean government for his service during the Korean War more than 70 years ago.

He laughed when citing the photo of Marilyn Monroe singing from the stage to the troops in Korea – tacked to a bulletin board near the entrance to the cavernous meeting room with other black-and-white pictures from the mid-1950s –then held his index finger against his lips, gesturing that this historic rendezvous with this legend involved a secret crush.

He paused trying to maintain his composure when mentioning his daughter, Ann Goulbourne of Chichester, who clandestinely coordinated this effort, ensuring that her father would receive the recognition he deserved for risking his life as a medic and gathering intelligence as a member of a unique reconnaissance ski patrol.

His voice cracked when he thanked his niece, Linda Hart, after her kind words about him, and he made no attempt to hide the sadness he continues to feel to this day, leftover wounds that he says will never fade.

He lost friends in Korea. He made sure they were the center of his presentation, the first individuals he thanked, sniffling and pausing as he spoke.

“I will cherish this award for the rest of my life; this is quite an honor,” Lavigne, 91, told the gathering of about 50 people. “It reminds me of the men that I served with, and they share this honor with me.”

On Saturday afternoon, Lavigne was like a celebrity. Through her research and leg work, Goulbourne discovered that the South Korean government, forever grateful for U.S. support against North Korea and China during the Korean War, continues to honor veterans involved in a conflict that killed 36,000 Americans in just three years.

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Goulbourne found the necessary paperwork proving her father’s service, which put Saturday’s ceremony in motion. Her father was lauded by congressional spokespeople and Col. Erik Fessenden, director of joint staff of the New Hampshire National Guard.

The South Korean Consulate honored Lavigne for his time spent on the front lines, both as a member of the 45th Infantry Division Thunderbirds, an elite group of skiers working in counterintelligence and reconnaissance, and as a medic, attending to the wounded during bloody firefights.

“We walk in the footsteps of heroes like Jerry,” Fessenden told the gathering, “We’re indebted to you and your service and we’re honored to carry on your legacy. All of the good feelings that we have from the public and how folks look at us today is because of veterans like you and how you served.”

A rich, full, varied life

Goulbourne revealed other chapters from her father’s life. He and his brother tap danced together, forming a team that was good enough to compete on the Original Amateur Hour, a national TV show hosted by Ted Mack in the 1950s with a Star Search-like format.

He worked at Lockheed Martin technology for 30 years and developed a gift of gab rivaled by few, Goulbourne said. He still hunts at 91 and goes cross-country skiing. He drives and delivers food to the needy in the Nashua area, where he grew up. He says he could still dance, “but it would have to be a soft shoe.”

“He loves to ask, ‘Guess how old I am?’” Goulbourne said. “He looks like he’s in his 70s. He’s friendly, does activities, cracks jokes. But when mom got sick, he focused on her all the time.”

He was married to Louise Lavigne for 55 years. Jerry moved with her into assisted living, finally acknowledging that her Alzheimer’s disease had become too difficult for him to handle without professional help.

Louise died in 2017. Jerry moved to Pleasant View Retirement soon after and has thrived. Once a wisp of a soldier in Korea, he’s barrel-chested and broad shouldered these days, moving effortlessly, always looking for a hand to shake or a back to slap.

He wore a blue tie and crisp white shirt under his sport coat on Saturday. Ann kept the news about his medal quiet until late last year.

“I was stunned,” Lavigne said by phone. “I was like, ‘You want to run that by me again?’ I had goosebumps.”

A daughter’s dedication

Ann prepared well for the big day. She found elements of his past life. Boxes and boxes of photos and other items, showing that Lavigne was a track star in high school who later raced sailboats and took up painting. There were photos of him in the snow in Korea, carrying his skis, posing with old friends, many of whom never made it home.

Lavigne recalled a friend, a fellow medic, who tried to rescue a pair of soldiers who had suffered severe injuries in a mine-field explosion. The medic then died himself in an explosion as Lavigne watched.

He said those scenes have stuck with him.

“They still bother me,” Lavigne said. “I got chocked up when I started to talk about it.”

So, through the decades, he rarely did. Ann, preparing for Saturday’s tribute, discovered this while looking through boxes in the basement, untouched for years and essentially forgotten.

“It was dangerous (in Korea)” Ann said. “He saw people killed, medics trying to get people to safety. He didn’t talk about it when I was growing up. It wasn’t until he got into the assisted living with mom and then again at Pleasant View. He was around other vets and that gave him the community to have shared experiences and he incorporated that into how he looked at himself.”

Returning to the pastafter a long wait

It’s a common thread connecting veterans who have seen the worst war has to offer. Soldiers returning home from war often say little about their experiences. Gradually, as they move into their senior years, many tend to be more reflective.

“I came home and my family never knew what had happened; it was done, period,” Lavigne said. “I started to open up more when I hit my 90s and asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with all this that I know about?’ I never went through those boxes and thought I must have lost them. There were buddies who passed away. My wife never knew. When I turned 90, things began to open up.”

Louise was gone by then. She never saw her husband’s guard drop like it did on Saturday, when his old 90-year-old Army buddy, Richard Lavallee of St. Albans, Vermont, watched the celebration on a video feed.

Lavigne and Lavallee trained together before both fought in Korea. They’ve been friends for 70 years. Lavigne and Lavallee hunted, fished and skied together. They’d go out as couples – Lavigne and Louise, Richard and his wife, Dottie – to see shows like Fidler on the Roof.

When his speech, running the gamut of emotions in just two minutes, concluded, Lavigne invited his guests to “enjoy the refreshments and visit friends and others and don’t leave this place without giving me a hug or giving me a high five.”

He saw his old friend on the the computer screen.

“He looked weak, but we shared a lot of good times,” Lavigne said.

The two Army friends, drawn together by a bond most people can not possibly understand, talked for a minute before Lavigne greeted his guests like a groom at his wedding.

“In two weeks or something like that, I’ll be coming up, regardless” Lavigne told Lavallee. “I miss you already. I love you. Bye now.”