Vietnam veteran and Claryville resident Charles Breiner, center, was honored December 13 with the Sullivan County Legislature’s Distinguished Citizen Award. Congratulating him were, front row from the left, legislators Ira Steingart, Mark McCarthy, Joe Perrello and Nadia Rajsz; and back row from the left, legislators Luis Alvarez, Alan Sorensen, Scott Samuelson, Terri Ward, Catherine Owens and County Manager Josh Potosek.
Monticello, NY – Reading Charles “Charlie” Breiner’s autobiography, like all engaging memoirs, is both harrowing and heartening.
Tucked inside a photo album, Charlie’s written life history plays out like a film. The “first act” – the backstory – concerns his 1940s and ‘50s youth in Middletown and the many Christmases he received still-cherished Lionel train sets. In fact, his initial train – consisting of a Shell Oil tank car, gondola, Pennsylvania Railroad caboose and a figure-eight track – arrived upon the occasion of his first Christmas in 1941.
“I still have it,” he proudly notes.
The “middle act” of Charlie’s life focuses on his inaugural days working at the Middletown State Hospital and his trip to the Grand Canyon while studying at Northern Arizona University, climaxing with his intense, life-changing experiences serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“I worked summers at the State Hospital, first in the Grounds Department and eventually in the Recreation Department,” he explains, having been drummed out of the kitchen by a food service director who considered Charlie “too skinny and frail.”
“The job was waiting for me when I got back from the Army, and thank God it was,” he muses.
He’d served – voluntarily – in the combat zones of Vietnam from 1967-68, losing friends amidst the carnage, and it was disorienting to be back in the peaceful U.S., albeit one wracked by division over the war. Indeed, he experienced that divide firsthand, when young hippies called him a “baby killer” in the middle of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on his way home.
“I’ve made my peace with the Vietnamese,” he affirms, even interested in returning to that country today. “But I’m still upset about how I was harassed at the Port Authority.”
The “third act,” or denouement, sees Charlie returning to an America very different from what he left, ultimately settling in to steady employment at the Middletown State Hospital, a permanent home in Claryville and a happy marriage with wife Iris.
“I met my wife in the State Hospital,” he recalls, pausing just long enough to make one wonder exactly what he means by that – then adding, with a grin, “She became a licensed clinical social worker.”
The couple moved to Sullivan County after being married in 1974, both working at a joint State-County psychiatric day treatment facility in South Fallsburg. At the same time, Charlie joined the Claryville Fire Department, where he remains a proud member.
A few years later, he earned his master’s in Community Mental Health Counseling from Long Island University and returned to Middletown State Hospital in 1985 to become its Treatment Team Leader. After three decades working for the State, he retired in June of 1996.
The epilogue of Charlie’s life is still being written, and – in keeping with the rest of his story – it’s both compelling and poignant.
“My left ankle is completely shot from Agent Orange,” he acknowledges from the seat of his powered wheelchair, though he emphatically adds, “I do not regret my service.”
In fact, his grandson is currently serving in the Navy, and he views the military as “probably the most successful program for young people. You develop a great deal of maturity, self-discipline and camaraderie.”
The care provided to him by the Monticello VA Office and Castle Point Veterans Hospital has been outstanding, and it’s allowed him to continue pursuing his passion for history, particularly railroadiana. He’s a member of the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society and has a sizable library of historical books and artifacts in his home. Several of those tomes are his own, as Charlie has authored six books about the O&W Railway. And just a few steps off Charlie’s porch sits his renowned “garden railroad” – a miniature outdoor version of his beloved O&W and a popular local attraction.
“Charlie is a man of many talents and interests, and 77 years on, he continues to give of himself to his community, his home Town of Neversink, Sullivan County and this nation,” notes District 3 Legislator Mark McCarthy, Charlie’s representative on the Sullivan County Legislature. “I’ve rarely met a finer man, someone who – out of a sense of obligation for the good life he’s been given – voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War.”
McCarthy and his fellow legislators proudly bestowed the Distinguished Citizen Award on Charlie today because of that giving attitude and the inspiration he’s provided along the way.
Charlie, however, remains modest, grateful simply to have experienced a memorable, rewarding life and career in the service of others. As his autobiography succinctly concludes, “When all is said and done, Charles and Iris have had a good life together.”