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Flags rekindle memories for local Navy veteran

The Herald - 5/28/2018

May 28--SHARON -- Gary McMasters' favorite holidays are the ones calling for the American flag to be flown.

For the past five years, the Navy veteran has installed small flags around Riverview Manor apartments in Sharon where he lives.

McMasters served during the Vietnam War from 1973 to its very last days in 1975. He said the flag helps him remember those times.

"I have a lot of attachment to the flag," the 61-year-old said.

He was raised in Ford City, Pa., but his life was already rough by the time he turned two.

"My father was arrested for robbery," McMasters said. "And my mother was arrested for prostitution."

Declared an orphan by a court, he, his brothers and sisters were eventually placed in an orphanage.

"I have no idea where any of them are now," he said.

McMasters attended high school in Kittanning, where he desperately yearned for something greater.

"I was in 10th grade and was 17," he said. "And that's when I joined the Navy."

He served aboard ships in the war but doesn't recall any dramatic moments. An event 12 years later could be the reason for that.

After exiting the Navy, he returned to the Ford City area and worked a couple jobs. Then one day he was relaxing at his favorite bar when he began to feel woozy.

"I began having this pain in my neck and it began going up my head," McMasters said.

Sensing something was terribly wrong, he phoned his girlfriend to pick him up.

"The last thing I remember was being on a sidewalk," he said. "Five and a half months later, I found myself waking up at a Pittsburgh hospital. I was in a coma the entire time."

He was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and had been on life support. Hospital staff told him he survived an incredible ordeal.

"They said at one point I had no heartbeat, no pulse," McMasters said. "I was declared dead."

Fortunately, the medical staff stood by him and he returned to life. He still isn't clear on much of the details about how he was saved. But he was far from healthy.

"I had dementia," he said. "I was a mess."

A job at a Youngstown mill brought him to Sharon. He tried working at that and other jobs but had to bail out each time due to seizures.

There were other long-lasting consequences for him.

"There's parts of my life that I just can't remember," he said.

Over the years he was in and out of veterans' hospitals for treatment.

"I still have seizures," McMasters said. "And I still have to be on heavy medications."

After living in Sharon for more than a decade, he found his calling. Riverview Manor residents informally meet every month to find projects for themselves. Five years ago, McMasters suggested that they erect small flags around the apartment building. The idea was a hit and each year residents chip in to buy the flags.

This year more than 100 flags surround the building for Memorial Day -- each one planted by McMasters. But this isn't limited to just a single day.

"Every holiday the flags are suppose to be out I put them up," he said.

His enthusiasm has caught on. Residents of next door Connelly Manor began installing flags a couple of years ago, he relates. And each year he ups the number.

"This year we've got 104 flags," he said.

One memory hasn't gotten away from McMasters. And it's his attachment to the American flag that motivates him to erect them.

"It reminds me of the time I was in the service -- and what it stands for," he said. "Me and the flag are one in what it represents -- God and country."

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(c)2018 The Herald (Sharon,Pa)

Visit The Herald (Sharon,Pa) at www.sharonherald.com

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