KAUNAKAKAI - An empty frame of what will someday be the Molokai Veterans Center sits along Wharf Road just outside Molokai's main town of Kaunakakai. A yellow sign in front of the building reads "Helping the Veterans of Molokai," a message that perhaps none took to heart more than Larry Helm, commander of Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans. Helm had been at the forefront of the decade-long struggle to get a veterans center on the island but died before he had the chance to see his dream come to fruition.
Hilarion "Larry" Hugh Helm died peacefully in his Hoolehua home June 19 after a battle with liver cancer. He was 70. He was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer common among Vietnam veterans, family members said.
"I am deeply saddened to learn of Uncle Larry Helm's passing. He spent his entire life fighting battles in service to our country, our communities and our selfless veterans, and he fought courageously in his final battle with cancer . . . (His) absence will be felt among the entire Molokai community, and across the state," said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who honored Helm in a speech in the House of Representatives last month.
The Molokai Veterans Center is nearly completed along Wharf Road in Kaunakakai.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Helm, commander of Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, spent most of his life helping other veterans obtain medical and financial services. The last years were spent trying to secure a veterans Center on Molokai.
Photo courtesy NICHOL HELM KAHALE
Helm spent the last decade of his life trying to secure a space for the nearly 400 veterans on Molokai, who for years had been renting a small room, known as "the bunker," that fits only a few people.
"The veterans on Molokai wanted to have a veterans center because the one they had was this little office in the middle of town. And when I say little, I'm saying tiny - only three or four guys could fit inside there. Even though that's a small island, their veterans group is very tight-knit," Paul Laub, president of the Maui County Veterans Council, said.
The process started in 2000, when Helm and a team of volunteers started planning for a space where they could hold regular meetings and Veterans Affairs clinics. Molokai Ranch donated about an acre for the center, but securing the building permits took more than seven years, Laub said.
The process ran into difficulty when the Molokai Planning Commission decided that the project needed two permits - one for the building and the other for the flagpole. The permit for the flagpole alone was held up two years when the Maui County Water Department director refused to grant the permit unless the water line was expanded from 4 to 8 inches. The permit for the 3,000-square-foot building was held up for various other reasons, and it wasn't until Helm filed a complaint against Maui County in U.S. District Court that the project was allowed to move forward, Laub said.
"He (Helm) was the main spokesman for the Molokai veterans. Everyone really respected him; he was a real warrior," Laub said.
Helm wore a number of hats throughout his life - Vietnam veteran, family man, singer and songwriter, entertainer and entrepreneur, and former political candidate - but was known by most on his home island of Molokai simply as "Uncle Larry."
He was born July 27, 1942, in Puunene, Maui, to the late Melanie "Koko" Helm and late George Jarrett Helm Sr. He grew up on a homestead farm in Kalamaula, Molokai, the oldest of seven children.
"We turned to him for wisdom because he was the oldest," sister and Maui County Council Member Stacy Crivello said. "I look back on our trail of growing up, just the flow of laughter, the flow of music, the flow of backyard jamming. We came from a big family.
Helm graduated from Molokai High School in 1960 and went on to attend Chaminade University of Honolulu College before being drafted into the U.S. Army. He served with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry, 25th Division at Schofield Barracks and was a Vietnam combat veteran.
"My father embodied love and compassion for all human beings," Nichol Helm Kahele, Helm's daughter, said. "He loved people, cared for people, wanted the best for people. He wanted you to succeed, and he wanted you to know that you could succeed at whatever you wanted in life."
After Helm fell ill, his daughter and son Michael took over the effort to raise the final $100,000 needed to finish the veterans center in hopes that it would be completed in time for their father to see the official opening. They raised $25,000 at a June fundraiser selling tile pavers that will be used to line the walkway of the new veterans center.
Gabbard, a veteran herself who has made trips to Molokai and talked story with Helm and other veterans there, has pledged to continue the fight to get the center funded and opened.
"As I promised him when I last saw him . . . I will continue to work toward fulfilling his dream of opening a veterans center on the island, which will provide much-needed services to veterans and their families," Gabbard said.
The parking lot, adjacent sidewalk, flagpole, sewer system and kitchen appliances still need to be finalized and installed before the center opens to veterans, but acting commander of the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans Dr. David Hafermann said he is confident that the center will be completed by the end of the year.
"The dream was to have a location, a place of refuge for veterans," Hafermann said. "Everybody looked to Larry to lead the process; it was the most important thing in his life these last 10 years."
"Larry was more than just the public persona that people saw in town. He was inquisitive, always interested, he had some very strong core values. His email (address) was 'larrybpono' and that's what he always aspired to and in my mind, he was that," Hafermann said.
As for a tribute to Helm in the new veterans center once opened, Hafermann said it was yet to be determined.
"Larry and I talked about the building, he wanted the name to be kept the Molokai Veterans Center; he didn't want any name on it," Hafermann said. "And that was his focus, that this was for all the veterans."
A celebration of Helm's life is planned Saturday, on what would have been his 71st birthday. Visitation will be from 8 to 10:45 a.m. at St. Damien Catholic Church in Kaunakakai, followed by a eulogy and Mass from 10:45 a.m. to noon. Burial at the Kanakaloloa Veteran Cemetery in Hoolehua will follow.
Helm is survived by his wife of 46 years, Barbara; sons Michael Helm, Matthew Helm and Marcus Helm; daughter Nichol Helm Kahale; and 11 grandchildren.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.