Carl Francis Roy was born in Brooklyn, New York, in March of 1948. He grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, a famed barrier island beach town on the Atlantic Ocean. It was there, as fellow sophomores at Far Rockaway High School, that he first met Medina Kirschenbaum. “Met” is probably a bit of a euphemism. On the first day of school, in 10th grade biology class (the subject is important here), the teacher was taking attendance. Just after the pronunciation of Medina’s last name, a voice called out from the back of the room, “…is that a name or a disease?” It was the first time Medina had ever heard Carl’s voice. It was far from the last time she’d experience that side of him.
Because sometimes stories work out this way, they soon got to know each other very well. But not because of a deeply shared interest in school. Carl was often late to his own class, waiting outside Medina’s when the bell rang to walk her to her next class. Or sometimes he just didn’t show up to class at all, often bored and restless in school.
Carl dropped out of high school in his junior year, enlisting in the Army when he was 17, just as the Vietnam War was beginning to appear regularly on the nightly news and on the front pages of every major newspaper in the country. Basic training took place at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He was later stationed at Keesler A.F.B. in Biloxi, Mississippi, and at Ft. Polk in Vernon Parish, Louisiana. Motivated by the camaraderie and productive discipline of the military, Carl got his G.E.D. while in the service. In 1967 he was sent to Vietnam, where he served in Charlie Company, 4th Battalion (mechanized), 23rd Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
Carl suffered a number of injuries during his service in Vietnam. Being near an exploding I.E.D. (though that term wasn’t in common use then) gave him a lifelong case of tinnitus. There was the shrapnel that embedded in his legs during combat. After a serious gunshot wound to his upper right thigh, he was medivacked to a military hospital in Japan. After months of rehab Carl was sent home, along with two purple hearts and other service awards. Once home he was assigned to Ft. Ord in California. But his wounds hadn’t healed, and never fully did. (P.T.S.D., the full impact of which was just being fully recognized by health professionals, would affect him for the rest of his life.) Happily, he had a powerful home-state Senator, and a letter written by then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) got him a medical discharge. Carl was then sent home to New York and spent some two months in the Army hospital in St. Albans, Queens.
Carl and Medina re-connected once he was back in New York, and they married in 1972. As with most newlyweds, there are lots of funny stories. One that always made them both laugh was the time they spent living in a commune. (Which did provide them with lifelong friends, who were still coming for visits in Key Largo just a few years ago.) After his military experiences, Carl’s natural restlessness and growing P.T.S.D. led him on a life journey that explored both his talents and inner needs. He studied culinary arts in New York, developing special skills in pastry, and worked in the restaurant business for several years. He and his parents managed a very busy coffee shop inside Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. Then there was the night shift at the Post Office in Queens. While working there he took various courses during the day. Later he attended the Germain School of Photography in Manhattan, eventually specializing in medical and scientific photography. For a few years he worked photographing surgeries for research universities. This kind of work appealed to his careful, thorough, meticulous, detail-oriented (some might say borderline O.C.D.) side. Some of his photos were submitted for use in medical textbooks.
Carl never liked the cold. He and Medina had begun to take winter vacations in Key Largo, and he soon began to lobby her to move there permanently. His persuasion finally won her over, and they relocated to the Upper Keys in 1981. Together with a few colleagues, Carl started a local photography club. Because there was little call for medical photography in a vacation island chain, and he didn’t want to commute to Miami for work, Carl briefly turned to portrait photography, which he enjoyed, and weddings, which he didn’t. He was the manager of the first one-hour photo shop at the original CVS in Key Largo. Then, reaching back to other acquired skills, became the first manager of the Wendy’s in Key Largo.
But sometimes, for the seekers, there’s a perfect career marriage of characteristics and talents and the heart’s passions. Carl found his true calling when he became Monroe County’s Upper Keys Veterans Service Officer. His deep attachment to fellow veterans had only increased over the years, and he LOVED representing vets and would not rest until he found solutions to their problems. He was also a member of, sometimes serving as an officer for, several Upper Keys veterans organizations, like the Disabled American Veterans (D.A.V.), the VFW and the American Legion. During this time, Carl and Medina (who never liked summer heat) bought some property and built a house on a mountain in Boone, North Carolina, where together they spent every summer for thirteen years.
So who was Carl Francis Roy? He was complex, and driven, and private, and open, and passionate, and fiercely loyal. He himself considered his most important accomplishment to have been leading the effort to bring the Traveling Vietnam Wall (a replica of the haunting black marble memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.) to Key Largo in 2014. This took over a year of constant work. His passion for the project brought many talented volunteers to enlist and help, including Ksenia Leonteva, assistant to Carl’s successor as Upper Keys Veterans Service Officer, Marilyn Beyer, Chris Rubino, Julie Marshall, Jerry DeCaso, Randy Wall, Jules & Nettie Seder, and especially the late and tireless Carol Steinbock, who did much of the legal work pro bono. Hundreds of visitors attended over the several days the Wall was on display at the park in Key Largo. Carl was a good sailor, and loved just being out on the water. Perhaps his most favorite thing to do was go fishing with best buddy Dr. John Izanec. He was an avid reader of military history, particularly about Vietnam. He became a rare expert on the complexities of veterans’ benefits. Yet his ferocious devotion, along with the P.T.S.D. that he lived with every day, began to take a toll. He had to retire from the job he loved because he could never, day or night, separate himself from the problems of his fellow veterans. His health began to decline.
At a recent mass in Carl’s honor at San Pedro Catholic Church in Tavernier, several veterans got up to speak, saying how hard Carl had worked for them, and helped them, often going far beyond what the job required or what they thought was possible. As he had long wished, and often talked about, Carl will be granted the honor of being buried beside his fellow soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river from and overlooking Washington, D.C. A local memorial service will be held at a later date.
For anyone wishing to make a donation in Carl’s name, Medina suggests the Fisher House Foundation. For those who don’t know, the foundation builds and maintains comfortable houses where military and veterans’ families can stay while a loved one is in the hospital. Fisher Houses are located at major military facilities and VA medical centers nationwide and in Europe. Importantly, the foundation sees to it that no family ever has to pay a lodging fee. Since 1990, that has meant over 10 million lodging nights.
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