Jerry Donnellan was an All American hero. He grew up in Nyack NY as the youngest of 5, born to Irish immigrants.
He spent the last three decades advocating for veterans after losing his right leg in Vietnam. After beating the odds, he made his way in the world, started his own production company, Peg Leg Productions and became Frank Sinatra's road manager.
After Sinatra retired, Jerry Donnellan began a grass roots movement to bring attention to veteran's issues and to honor those that had lost their lives through a unique memorial concept. This was to honor the fallen by building and lighting Watchfires on Memorial Day. A fire that would burn for 24 hours as a Beacon for those that did not return.
In 1986, Jerry oversaw major changes for veterans during his tenure as Rockland Veterans Services director.
He received a Purple Heart as a U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam during the war.
Donnellan gave veterans visibility and in return he became the face of Rockland County NY's service men and women, with his scraggly beard, metal-framed glasses and Peg Leg.
"Jerry Donnellan was always larger than life itself – always there to help others,” Rockland Legislator Phil Soskin, D-Ramapo, said Friday. “As a veteran of the U.S. Army myself, I always knew how important his efforts were and was always appreciative of all he did for veterans. He was a true soldiers’ soldier."
During his years as veterans services coordinator and commissioner, Donnellan saw the county's veteran population change predominantly from those who served in World War II, to Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
There were some 30,000 veterans, many of them from World War II, when he joined the county agency, with the population now at about 10,000.
He also worked hard to encourage veterans — many of whom still felt the pains particularly of Vietnam — to seek services and counseling, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re all aware of the great work Jerry did for all all veterans,” said Walker, a military veteran. “He was a great American and veteran. He always seem to have other people’s interests at heart.”
High points of his career:
• Helped start the Memorial Day Watchfires in1987 as an alternative to a parade for Vietnam veterans. This has become an annual tradition to honor those who never returned from war and a national event.
• Started a veterans health clinic in 1996, first at the county's health complex in Ramapo and now in New City.
• Brought awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder.
• Opened the first homeless shelter for veterans in Valley Cottage (Missing In America) in the early 1990s, which has since closed and been transferred to Homes for Heroes in Tappan.
• Established the Rockland County Public Service Medal to honor those who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Global War on Terror, using the award as a way to connect with a new generation of returning vets to ensure they were accessing and aware of their benefits
• Established the Rockland County Buffalo Soldiers’ Award to recognize the contributions of African-American veterans
• Helped create Camp Shanks Museum in Orangetown where military personnel assembled before being sent to Europe during World War II.
Even in retirement, Donnellan continued to fight for veterans. He also was a prolific letter-writer to state and federal agencies on behalf of veterans and the local media, such as The Journal News and lohud.com.
When the Rockland Legislature asked veterans to voice their opinions at two public hearings on Feb. 20 regarding property tax exemptions for veterans, Donnellan spoke in favor of both and attended the bill signing a few days later.
The Legislature honored him for his 30 years of service with the County Veterans Service Agency on Dec. 5, 2017, presenting him with a Distinguished Service Award, the board’s most prestigious honor.
Born Dec. 28, 1946, Donnellan is a lifelong Rockland resident who grew up along the Hudson River in Nyack before the first Tappan Zee Bridge was built.
He was a first-generation American, with his parents, Mike and Anna, who were both born in Ireland, immigrating to the U.S. in 1929.
For years he owned a houseboat on the river off of Nyack.
He graduated from Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia and eventually entered the U.S. Army, where he served with the 196th Light Infantry in Vietnam.
He gave a biographical interview with the Hudson Valley Heritage on audio file with the New City Library.
Donnellan whimsically would laugh and say he became "Rockland County's least successful draft dodger" who "felt I had a duty to serve and I wasn't going to duck it."
Donnellan did his 21-day search-and-destroy tours in the Vietnam jungle, alternating with three days on perimeter duty. He suffered wounds Oct. 24, 1969, while serving as a sergeant with the Army's 196th Light Infantry in Vietnam's central highlands, which he would joke "is like the Catskills without any resorts."
He was shot twice and hit with a grenade, leaving countless pieces of shrapnel in his body. A piece that surfaced in what's left of his right leg was the source of his most recent health issues.
In 1986, Donnellan had a successful career in show business, coordinating sound and lights as a production stage manager for Sinatra, touring the world.
His company’s name was Pegleg Productions.
Donnellan joined the Rockland Veterans Service Agency in 1988, becoming its commissioner in 1992.
Donnellan had a way with veterans — especially those who served in Vietnam. He had shared experiences and an ability to smile and use humor to get through to them.
Donnellan had opined that today’s veterans have it worse than Vietnam era vets because the awareness of PTSD has the public convinced that all veterans have PTSD. The public also is further removed from the Vietnam generation, whose fathers and uncles fought in World War II or Korea.
He told The Journal News in 2006 that he returned from war visibly different.
“You can’t come back from combat the same person you were,” he said. “You take someone from Rockland County and you drop them into a situation where they’re killing people and those people are trying to kill you and all of a sudden somebody blows a whistle and you’re back on Main Street.
"There would be a problem if you were the same, if you could turn that off," he said. "I think PTSD is just a normal reaction to an abnormal set of circumstances.”
Jenn White, a former Nyack mayor, worked with Donnellan on conservation issues.
"He was an amazing man who contributed so much to this county," White said. "I was especially overjoyed to work on parks and conservation issues with him. We will deeply deeply miss him."
Rockland Emergency Services Coordinator Gordon Wren Jr., a Vietnam veteran, remembered seeing Donnellan standing outside a movie theater in Nanuet in the mid-1980s, handing out pamphlets to start a Vietnam veterans chapter in Rockland.
"He was standing in the cold handing out brochures and asked me if I was a Vietnam veteran," Wren said. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to join. He's salesman and he talked me into it."
Wren said Donnellan did amazing work with veterans who were suffering from traumatic memories.
"I can't believe how many people he helped," Wren said. "There were people on the edge whom he helped bring back."
Wren said one of Donnellan's secrets is he was sincere and down to earth.
"If you were going to film a movie about a leader in the veterans movement, Jerry would be perfect casting for the role," Wren said. "The way he looked, the way he acted. He understood the veterans and could relate to them."