John L. Behan, 68, was born on Nov. 11 -- Veteran’s Day -- which is fitting of his lifelong commitment to service.
He was fresh out of high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in the Vietnam War. At 21, he lost both his legs when a land mine exploded on the battlefield where he was fighting.
Behan did not let his injury affect his life post-service – he went on to become a New York State assemblyman, traveling from his home in Montauk all the way to Albany for two decades and becoming an advocate for the veterans of America.
“I did my service and I am proud of it,” Behan said. “If I could, I would do it again.”
On May 26, Behan led the procession at the 4th Annual Montauk Memorial Day Parade, one element of a series of activities that take place in the hamlet for Memorial Day weekend. The parade, organized by Ken Walles, owner of Oceanside Beach Resort in Montauk, left from the motel on Montauk Highway and continued east to the village green in the center of town.
“To so many people, Memorial Day weekend is about barbecues and parties,” Walles said. “This parade is to bring back the remembrance of what Memorial Day is.”
More than 2,000 people lined the streets waving American flags as they watched the procession of vintage cars, army trucks and marchers walk down the main road. Among those participating in the parade were the Montauk fire and police departments, the Coast Guard, local Boy Scout Troop 136 and a small cavalcade of motorcyclists made up of different veterans' advocate organizations.
Rene Rivera, 47, of Babylon, was among the riders participating in the parade. Rivera served in the 69th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army as a medic during the Iraq War. In 2005, Rivera encountered an improvised explosive device while on the road. After the explosion, Rivera had to provide emergency medical assistance to fellow soldiers while in the back of a fast-moving army medical truck. Now, Rivera is a part of Boots on the Ground, a national advocacy group for war veterans.
“We lost some guys in Iraq and we wanted to come out here and support them,” Rivera said. “Not only those lost, but the veterans that are here today.”
At the end of the parade, patrons and marchers participated in a sing-along to all of the official songs of the United States military, accompanied by Long Island-based band Johnny and the Local Players. A special tribute was made to Montauk’s military history and speeches were made by Behan and East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson.
The Montauk Memorial Day parade was one of the many events held by the Montauk community during Memorial Day weekend. On Monday, there will be a special Fish and Chips dinner for all local veterans followed by an official flag ceremony held at the Montauk village green.
“My hope is that Montauk becomes the No. 1 patriotic town in the country,” Walles said.