MILTON — The shortest soldier to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, a highly decorated officer who completed one tour of duty as a platoon leader with an airborne battalion and another as a Green Beret captain, lies at rest in an as-yet unmarked grave in a Milton cemetery.
Although he is the subject of a new documentary available on Amazon Prime and iTunes and a soon-to-be-released book, the full story of Capt. Richard J. Flaherty may never be known.
It begins in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1966, the year Flaherty graduated from high school, and also the year in which the American military presence in Vietnam had more than doubled from the previous year, while U.S. casualties had nearly quadrupled.
Images of firefights, bloodied U.S. soldiers and body bags were seen nightly on network television, along with scorecard-like tallies of the number of American and enemy soldiers killed in action.
While many draft-age males of that era sought ways to avoid being among the 385,000 troops sent to the beleaguered Southeast Asian nation that year, Flaherty was working the angles to find a way in.
Flaherty was born to a mother who, unknown to her, had a blood type that made her second-born son vulnerable to oxygen deprivation in his infancy, which stunted his growth. When he graduated from high school, Flaherty was 4 feet, 9 inches tall — three inches too short to meet the Army’s height requirement at the time. He also weighed less than 100 pounds, further disqualifying him from serving in the Army.
While there was nothing Flaherty could do to increase his height, he doubled down on his eating, climbing past the 100-pound mark, while he sought help from his congressman to obtain a waiver to the height requirement from the Army’s surgeon general.
“He was a tough, determined guy,” said David Yuzuk, who befriended Flaherty more than two decades after the war ended, when both were living in Aventura, Florida, a planned community in the suburbs north of Miami. At the time, Yuzuk was a police officer and Flaherty was a member of Aventura’s homeless community, camping under a palm tree off one of the city’s main boulevards.
“Richard was involved in martial arts long before anyone else knew much about them,” Yuzuk said. “A friend of his from high school told me he had fond memories of watching Richard breaking boards with his hands when he walked past the Flahertys’ garage. It was if he was hardening himself up for some special task.”
That special task began to take shape in September 1966, when Flaherty received a letter from Rep. Donald J. Irwin, D-Conn., informing him that the Army’s Surgeon General had recommended granting a waiver to the height requirement.
Flaherty enlisted late that year. After completing basic training, he qualified for Officer Candidate School, from which he graduated as a second lieutenant, before receiving orders sending him to Vietnam.
By April 1968, Flaherty was a paratrooper and a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. That month, his platoon came under heavy automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade fire from a North Vietnamese Army force. Flaherty led his platoon in a flanking assault on the enemy position, during which an NVA bunker was spotted. Flaherty then called for a 90 millimeter recoilless rifle — a shoulder-mounted explosive projectile launcher initially designed to destroy tanks — to be brought to his position, and from there, led its two-man crew on an assault of the North Vietnamese bunker.
“While braving the intense hail of hostile fire, Lieutenant Flaherty displayed astute direction and leadership,” leading to the enemy bunker being swiftly destroyed and “allowing his platoon to advance and continue its devastating attack on the enemy,” according to the citation for the Silver Star Flaherty was awarded for the action. In addition to exposing himself to enemy fire while leading the charge on the bunker, Flaherty “displayed extraordinary heroism while engaged in close combat with a well dug-in enemy force, in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.”
Flaherty returned to the U.S. later that year, and graduated from the Army’s Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, becoming a member of the elite Green Berets. He returned to Southeast Asia in 1969 and remained there until 1971 when he left the Army. By that time, Flaherty had been promoted to captain and awarded two Bronze Stars for bravery and two Purple Hearts for combat wounds, in addition to the Silver Star.
In his new life as a civilian, Flaherty studied at the University of Miami in Florida, but entered a period of despondency after a girlfriend died in a car wreck in 1975. After a few brushes with law enforcement, Flaherty reportedly worked as a confidential informant for the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the early 1980s before becoming homeless in Aventura by 1990.
Yuzuk said it was not long after he moved to Florida in 1999 and joined the Aventura Police Department that he noticed Flaherty.
“Friendships sometimes happen casually,” the former policeman said. “He used to spend all day at a movie theater. After a while, whenever I’d see him, I’d give him a little head nod and he’d do the same. A few years later, we started talking. He was always recommending books and talking about philosophy, work and politics and eventually giving me advice. In a way, he was like a mentor. He’d traveled a lot, read a lot and was interesting to talk with.”
But it wasn’t until 2015 that Flaherty first spoke of his time as a platoon leader and Green Beret in Vietnam.
“I didn’t believe him at first,” Yuzuk recalled. “I’d known him for 15 years, and this was the first time he ever mentioned the military. But I went home, got on the computer and looked him up, and it checked out.”
The two began meeting more frequently, and Yuzuk became so fascinated with Flaherty’s story that he asked permission to tell it in the form of a documentary.
“He agreed to cooperate, but said that once we got started, I had to promise to finish the project,” Yuzuk said.
Flaherty took Yuzuk to a storage locker he rented to pull out photos and documents that might be useful in the documentary, and they returned several times in the following weeks until May 9, 2015 — the date Flaherty was struck and killed by a hit and run driver near his palm-shaded campsite.
Yuzuk was stunned by both the sudden loss of a friend and the realization that he would need to do his own detective work to discover what Flaherty had not gotten around to telling him about his life. It turned out to be a lot.
Statements in the storage unit showed that he had several thousand dollars in bank accounts, while a passport and receipts from a travel agent indicated that during the time he was homeless, he had made trips to such countries as Jordan, Venezuela, Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia.
Yuzuk also found papers showing that Flaherty had paid a deposit for a burial plot in Milton’s Forest Memorial Park, with a request to be buried near Lisa Davis Anness, whom the Vietnam vet described as the love of his life. Anness, who died in 2005, was the daughter of an Army captain, and traveled the world with her military family before settling in Miami, where she earned an MBA at the University of Miami and worked as a consultant. According to newspaper files, her grandparents operated a restaurant in Milton.
Yuzuk said none of the relatives or companions of Flaherty or Anness he has spoken with was aware of a relationship between the two. He indicated that while Flaherty’s survivors had planned on the burial taking place at Arlington National Cemetery, they honored his wish to be buried in West Virginia.
Yuzuk used his own funds and a crowdsourcing campaign to produce “The Giant Killer,” an 80-minute documentary available on Amazon Prime and iTunes, released late last year.
He said he hopes the movie makes people think twice before being dismissive or hateful toward the homeless, many of whom are veterans, and make politicians think carefully before “sending American men and women to foreign places to kill people. Putting people in that situation changes them.” he said. “It changed Richard,” he said, adding that he had found letters in his locker explaining why he needed help to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Richard was my friend and I promised him I would finish the project,” Yuzuk said. “But he may have left me with more mysteries than I’ll ever be able to solve.”
Meanwhile, Flaherty’s burial spot, just behind Lisa Davis Anness’s grave, remains unmarked as another Veterans Day approaches. A cemetery employee said the appropriate relatives have been contacted and a marker has been ordered and is expected to be set in place early next year.