Published November 26. 2012 4:00AM Updated November 26. 2012 4:47PM
When Harold Farrington Jr. was inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame last year, he looked out into the audience and saw a friend he thought should be standing there beside him.
Paul Dillon, a retired Navy master chief, had nominated Farrington for the honor. This year Dillon protested when Farrington nominated him.
"He said, 'I'll never get in there. I'm not up to your level,'" Farrington said. "I said, 'Yes you are. You don't realize it, but yes you are.'"
The two men met 14 years ago when they worked in neighboring offices at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. Farrington, who established the veterans services office at the base, has since retired from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dillon still helps retired service members and their families with questions about their benefits every Wednesday at the Retired Activities Office - a volunteer job he says is the highlight of his week.
A tireless advocate for veterans, Dillon is a leader in the National Association for Uniformed Services, and he fights for Navy veterans who served during the Vietnam War and were denied compensation for presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.
Dillon, who served in the Navy from 1956 to 1980, said the federal government recognized that the combination of herbicides sprayed during the war caused his own prostate cancer because he spent time off his ship, a Navy cruiser, and on the ground in Vietnam. Several of his shipmates have died of their illnesses, without receiving that same recognition.
Farrington said Dillon spends countless hours volunteering with many different military and veterans groups, "out of the goodness of his heart," and despite his own medical issues.
"He has given his whole life to his country and veterans," Farrington, of Old Saybrook, said.
Now Farrington will be in the audience when Dillon and the 11 other veterans who were chosen for the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame Class of 2012 are inducted into the hall in a ceremony Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
The Veterans Hall of Fame recognizes distinguished veterans who have made significant contributions to their communities after leaving the military. There is no physical location for the hall. Information about the inductees is on the Connecticut Department of Veterans' Affairs website.
Three honorees are from southeastern Connecticut: Dillon, of Gales Ferry, Herbert Schacht of Quaker Hill and Manuel Cardoza Jr. of Preston.
"A lot of veterans out there do a lot more than I do for the local community and for their fellow veterans," said Dillon, 74. "I just do my best."
Schacht, 90, served in the Army during World War II. He was assigned to Army hospitals stateside because of his asthma. Schacht said he worked long hours for many days in a row, but he considered himself lucky.
"The men that were there were sick. These were men that had been in combat," Schacht said.
After the war, Schacht returned home to work at the school his family founded, the Waterford Country School.
Schacht planned to stay a few months. Instead he spent 40 years working with emotionally disturbed and special-needs children and with numerous local and state organizations focused on children's mental health and education issues.
"He became part of the solution to the needs in the state," said his daughter, Eileen DeGaetano.
Schacht retired 30 years ago as the director of the school but still lives next door.
"When I look back at the number of very troubled children we took care of, the fact that we never had a disabling injury, we never had a death, I think that was all the success I needed," he said. "We had a lot of kids that were happy. It was a happy place and it still is."
DeGaetano, who submitted the nomination, said her father has always been a "very humble, behind-the-scenes man who never sought any personal attention."
Schacht said joining the hall is "one of those things that you don't expect, and when they come your way you feel very good."
"There are a lot of other men that should get (into the hall). I mean, there were men everywhere who did good things, things that were in the best interest of the United States," he said.
Cardoza, 83, served in the Army from 1951 to 1953 and spent about eight months in Korea. He has been involved in veterans' organizations for more than half a century.
A past commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Norwich and Preston and of American Legion Post 4, Cardoza now marches in parades as a member of the American Legion post's color guard and is an active member of the VFW.
He organized health screening days throughout New London County as a principal environmental sanitarian for the state Department of Public Health and served on the board of directors for The William W. Backus Hospital for nearly a decade after he retired from the health department in 1989.
Cardoza, who was nominated by his niece, Deborah Stiggle, said it's an honor to be included in the hall with veterans of such a high caliber.
"It was a complete surprise. I just figured they wouldn't single me out," he said.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said all of the veterans in the class "represent the best of our state and our nation."
"They have earned this honor not only by defending America with great courage while in uniform, but by maintaining that devotion to service when they returned home," she said. "Although they come from diverse backgrounds and military service, the common thread that binds them is their extraordinary commitment to help their fellow man and make their community a better place for all."
Dillon said being recognized for helping veterans has been "a very humbling experience."
And as for why he is so involved in veterans' causes, Dillon said, "Really I don't know, except I found myself amongst a proud group, a band of brothers and sisters, and no matter where I go if there's a veteran we have something in common." Two of his three sons are senior officers in the Marines, and his oldest son works in finance.
"There really is something about service," Dillon said, "no matter which service it was."
The 2012 Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame inductees are:
Rev. Thomas E. Berberich, of Kent, Army, Vietnam/ brigadier general chaplain
Manuel Michael Cardoza, Jr., of Preston, Army, Korea/ corporal medical tech.
Paul Francis Dillon, of Gales Ferry, Navy, Vietnam/ master chief radioman
Peter Galgano, Jr., of Bristol/East Berlin, Marine Corps, Vietnam/sergeant
William George Godburn, of Meriden, Army, WWII/corporal
Norman Hanenbaum, of Farmington, West Hartford and Haddam, Marine Corps, WWII/corporal
Alan Jepson, of Milford, Navy, WWII/seaman second class
Charles Richard Morrissey, Sr., of North Haven, Army, Vietnam/second lieutenant
Herbert Thomas Schacht, of Quaker Hill, Army, WWII/private first class - Tec 5
Thomas Patrick Sheridan, Esq., posthumous award, formerly of East Hartford and Glastonbury, Army, Vietnam/SP5 intelligence analyst
James H. Throwe, of South Windsor, Army, Korea/sergeant major
Carmine Vaccaro, of Stamford, Navy, Korea/hospital corpsman