Dan Gallagher, an influential veterans advocate in Missoula, died Monday from a heart attack at St. Patrick hospital.
Gallagher, 69, dealt with heart and stomach problems throughout his life after inhaling Agent Orange during his 1967 tour of duty in Vietnam. His heart attack came after he was hospitalized the day before Veterans Day; he had heart surgery over the Christmas holiday.
One of his close friends and fellow Vietnam veteran Mike Halligan talked with Gallagher a few days before his death and he said he was weak, but in good spirits. All business, they talked about veterans affairs in Montana.
“That was what he knew and that was what he was going to go out with,” Halligan said. “Same old Dan.
“There probably is no one I know who has dedicated more of his life to veterans issues.”
The two met at Missoula’s Old Post 101 in the late 1970s.
Gallagher started the post with a couple of other local veterans in the Joseph Dixon house downtown after realizing he wasn’t the only veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, then known as delayed stress.
“It was visceral to him that the public treated Vietnam veterans with so much disdain,” said Halligan, director of government and corporate relations for the Washington Corp. “He matured over the years as he saw the public’s attitude change toward veterans, because they were separated from the politics of the war.”
Gallagher also started, organized and emceed the Veterans Day event held at the Doughboy statue in front of the Missoula County Courthouse.
Money was tight in the early days of the veterans post, Halligan said, and they couldn’t afford a public address system.
So Gallagher would bring a little battery-powered cassette player to broadcast the national anthem while he raised a flag.
“Everybody had to get real close,” Halligan said. “But that was Dan. He was going to run it and wasn’t going to question it.”
One year, on a below-zero morning, the batteries froze and they recited the Pledge of Allegiance instead, Halligan said, before an impromptu 20-minute speech by then-Mayor John Toole froze everyone’s toes, forgoing plans for other speakers.
For the first time this year, Gallagher was unable to plan and host the event, due to heart troubles.
A few of Gallagher’s children organized and set up the event and Halligan stepped in to replace Gallagher, which he said was an honor.
Kerry Gallagher, his daughter, said there’s been tremendous support from people after her father’s death, far more than she and her siblings were ready for.
“He had a big impact on people,” she said. “This huge outpouring made us realize.”
A few of his siblings still live in Montana, Kerry said, but none in his hometown of Charlo, where he’s going to be buried.
In a video interview from October 2015 with the Missoulian, Gallagher laid out his time in the army, return from Vietnam, struggles with delayed stress, and his start in veterans advocacy in Missoula.
Gallagher, the youngest of 13 children, felt there was an understanding in his family that he would serve in the military when it was his turn.
His father served in World War I and two older brothers served in World War II and Korea. Naturally then, Gallagher enlisted at the start of the Vietnam War.
“Anybody who goes to war, especially at the age of 19, you experience the destruction, the death,” he said. “It has a life-changing effect on you. All the negatives, all the trauma one associates with that.”
While he never got used to the death and awfulness in war, he understood that was what he signed up for. Serving as a combat engineer, Gallagher was tasked with blowing up bridges, dismantling enemy mines and planting his own.
One day he met two 10-year-old girls going through the garbage looking for food. He gave his heart to them, deeply sad when his platoon left the area and the girls.
“Years later when UNICEF did a report on the number of casualties after the war that were people that had been killed or hurt by mines left by the Americans, it was in the vicinity of 50,000,” he said. “I thought about how I had planted a lot of mines in Vietnam and that came back, thinking about the kids.”
The struggle for Vietnam veterans was their relationship with others – everyone from peaceniks to WWII vets looked down on them after returning to the states, Gallagher said, which confused his peers. They’d grown up with servicemen being praised and celebrated.
“PTSD came to Vietnam veterans not so much because of what we saw in the war, but because of the reception and what we didn’t have when we came back home,” Gallagher said. “There was that feeling of being in no man’s land.”
That feeling led to a low point in around 1975, Gallagher said, when he began seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-Vietnam disorder.
He began writing papers on veterans issues for some of his classes and worked to organize Old Post 101, giving veterans a place to gather and talk about their experiences.
In 1983 he started sharing his thoughts on veterans affairs on Montana Public Radio as a monthly commentator.
Former news director Sally Mauk said Gallagher was one of the first and the longest-running commentator on MTPR, from the early 1980s until the station stopped airing commentators in 2014.
“I know he fretted about them, trying to get them just right,” she said. “I appreciate all the care he put into it. It showed.”
Commentators were monthly or bimonthly contributors who got five minutes to share their opinions, in a researched and informative manner, on the air.
Gallagher spoke about veterans, his last post from June 2014 touching on the replacement of the secretary of veterans affairs and on the investigation into how U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl came to be held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“He spoke with, obviously, a very personal voice,” Mauk said. “We were very honored to have him on our station.”
Betsy Mulligan-Dague, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center’s executive director, met Gallagher for the first time around 2006, when she started attending the Veterans Day ceremonies. She ended up speaking at the ceremony in 2011, as part of her own efforts and Gallagher’s to bridge the divide between the peace community and veterans.
The two became fast friends during the filming of “Beyond the Divide,” a documentary released in 2014 about the peace sign painted on Waterworks Hill and the fracture that followed between anti-war and military establishment supporters in Missoula
Part of the documentary chronicles their friendship and the work between the peace center and veterans community, work that 40 years after the peace sign was painted still brought up bitter feelings in the two groups.
Gallagher had seen a lot of animosity and misunderstanding between them since he returned from Vietnam, and felt the two had more in common than not.
Most veterans, Mulligan-Dague said, are fighting to bring peace – a fact that Gallagher put into words time and time again during the Veteran’s Day memorials.
She and Gallagher found common ground through their strong-willed Irish fathers.
“We both had pretty similar memories of them teaching us to argue,” she said, though it was argument with a purpose.
Gallagher espoused the idea that even if two people vehemently disagree on a subject, they can still respect each other.
“It was time to get over any division we felt,” Mulligan-Dague said. “It was no small thing, to bring two communities together.”