Five members of a local military family will be honored at L-A’s Memorial Day event  

Retired Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins had just finished giving a talk in New Hampshire a couple of years ago when an elderly gentleman approached her and said he knew her late father, Albert.

Donat Veilleux had brought a copy of his 1951 Lewiston High School yearbook that was signed by Desjardins’ father, a fellow classmate.

After graduation, both men had left to fight in Korea. Desjardins, a sergeant with the U.S. Marines, returned a hero, earning a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. He died in 1999 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Veilleux made it his personal mission to make sure Desjardins was remembered in his hometown. He wanted his friend’s name added to the memorial stones in Veterans Memorial Park and desperately tried to locate a family member. He finally tracked down Desjardins’ highly decorated daughter, a retired two-star general who was the first female commandant at the Air Force Academy.

“It was very important to him,” Susan Desjardins said.

That set events in motion that culminates next Saturday with the unveiling of the newest memorial stone with five members of the Desjardins family included among the 216 names. In addition to Susan and Albert, the other family members being honored include mother Ann (Loring) Desjardins (Air Force nurse), brother Thomas Desjardins (Navy captain) and sister Cheryl Desjardins (Army).

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Susan Desjardins will speak at the ceremony. Veilleux, unfortunately, died earlier this year.

“I talked to him on the phone a couple of times,” Desjardins said. “He was thrilled we were able to get my father’s name on the stone. He was very driven to have my father recognized.”

Desjardins has been recognized wherever she has served during her 32-year Air Force career.

Growing up in a military family in New Hampshire, Desjardins said she wasn’t pressured to join the military, but learned important traits including loyalty, trust, hard work, excellence and determination from her mother and father.

During her senior year in high school, President Gerald Ford signed an authorization allowing women to attend the military academies. Originally considering a college like Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke or Colby, Desjardins was intrigued by the challenge of joining the first class of women at one of those schools.

Receiving a nomination to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado, Desjardins was one of 157 women to enroll in the academy’s first co-ed class of 1,500 cadets.

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Desjardins vividly recalls her first day, when all cadets entered the academy by marching up a ramp — above which were the words “Bring Me Men” in 2-foot-tall letters. Marching under that phrase was a tradition that had welcomed incoming cadets since 1964.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t really think we belonged there,” Desjardins said of herself and the other female cadets. “We had to prove ourselves, but that was fine. As a group, we didn’t want any special favors.”

Despite the hardships, the percentage of women from the first class who left the academy was nearly the same as the percentage of men — 40 percent attrition rate, which was pretty standard then, Desjardins said.

“I never regretted it,” she said. “I never looked back. I can’t think of a time I wanted to leave. It just fit for me.”

Cadets continued marching under the “Bring Me Men” sign until 2003, when it was finally replaced with a sign stating the Air Force core values: “Integrity First. Service Before Self. Excellence in All We Do.”

Commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduating in 1980, Desjardins embarked on a 32-year career that featured more than 20 different assignments in operational and command positions. She was promoted to brigadier general in 2006 and earned her second star in 2009.

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Specializing in flying transport and refueling planes, she has piloted a number of aircraft, including KC-10, C-17, C-5 Galaxy, KC-135 Stratotanker and T-37, accumulating more than 3,800 flying hours. She has commanded an air refueling squadron, an airlift wing and the country’s largest operations group.

She also has served as an adviser for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on the military implications of nuclear reduction treaties and test bans, and finished her career in 2012 as the director of Plans and Policy for the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

But one assignment that has a special place in her heart was when she returned to the Air Force Academy 25 years after she graduated to become the academy’s first female commandant, which she describes as a “very rewarding assignment.”

“The commandant is in charge of all training, discipline, honor code, the health and welfare of the cadets,” she said. “Basically, the day-to-day operations of the cadets.”

Of the academy’s 27 commandants, Desjardins remains the only female to serve in that capacity.

Desjardins has a busy few days ahead of her during Memorial Day Weekend.

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On Friday, she will receive an honorary degree and give the commencement address for the College of Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Toledo.

On Saturday morning, she and her husband will drive from their home in New Hampshire up to Lewiston to attend the stone’s unveiling.

Her sister, Cheryl, and other family members are also expected to come to the ceremony — but her brother, Thomas, who is still a ship’s captain, will be unable to attend, as he is tied up with sonar testing on the West Coast with the new research vessel RV Sally Ride, a ship owned by the Navy and operated by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

She will give a speech and help lay a wreath during the ceremony while wearing her major general uniform.

“This will be only the second time I’ve put my uniform on since I retired,” Desjardins said. “It’s only special days that you can put your uniform on after you retire.”

She is appreciative of the efforts of Veilleux and local veteran Normand Cote, who is in charge of adding names to the new memorial stones, to honor her family, especially her father, Albert, who earned his Silver Star in Korea in 1952 when serving as a forward artillery observer.

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According to his citation, while under constant attack, he went beyond the main lines to get a better view to direct fire on the enemy’s command position. Though he was wounded, he didn’t withdraw until the target was destroyed.

“Like a lot of veterans from the Vietnam era and the Korea era, they didn’t like to talk about their service or sacrifice,” Desjardins said. “They just wanted to go on with their lives. My father was one of those. He didn’t want people to make a big fuss about it.

“So I’m not sure how happy he would be with all of this,” she added with a laugh.

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Lewiston-Auburn Memorial Day celebration

Saturday, May 28

Veterans Memorial Park, Main Street, Lewiston

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• Dedication of the 28th stone monument containing 216 names of veterans begins at 10 a.m. Speakers include retired Maj. Gen. Susan Desjardins.

• The Civil Air Patrol of the Auburn Composite Squadron is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The squad will perform a flyover of Veterans Memorial Park and along the Androscoggin River, returning and dipping its wings over the park.

• Jerry DeWitt is emcee of the event and will escort Desjardins and veterans laying wreaths in memoriam. Ceremony includes a hand salute and the playing of “Taps.”

• A parade will precede the ceremony, starting at Kennedy Park in Lewiston at 9:30 a.m. Participants include Kora Temple Legion of Honor Color Guard, Kora Temple Highlanders and the combined marching bands from Edward Little, Leavitt and Lewiston high schools.


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