Terri McMahan thought she’d never get married, and neither did anybody else she knew.
On Saturday morning, about 20 people, including her neighbors, a local Boy Scout troop, members of Disabled American Veterans and a few friends gathered in front of the Arlington home where the 69-year-old has lived for 17 years.
The scouts raised and dedicated a new American flag in honor of her late husband, Walter J. McMahan, Jr., a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam, and her father, who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Troop 380 also performed a flag retirement ceremony for a flag owned by Terri’s father, Maurice H. Meister, a Navy air mechanic.
After the ceremony, Terri remembered the first time she met the man she would eventually marry.
“He was just coming out of the hospital,” she said. “He had long, straggly, greasy gray hair, a long gray beard, he was wearing a denim jacket and coveralls.”
She and Curly had been in and out of each other’s lives for about 20 years. When Walter’s sister died in 2008, Terri became his caregiver and they eventually grew closer.
Terri watched Curly, the Irish-Cherokee veteran who got his nickname because he was born with six inches of curly white hair, slowly emerge from a shell created by decades of pain.
Before some traumatic experiences during the 39 months he served in Vietnam, Terri said that Curly’s father had abandoned his family when he was 10.
Along the way, he’d had several troubled marriages, become estranged from his children and suffered medical issues that contributed to the 23 heart attacks he had in his life, the last of which would be fatal.
“He didn’t know how to say I love you,” Terri said. “He didn’t know how to show emotion.”
She took him to his first baseball game, rodeo and circus. She stuck by him when a balloon popped in a restaurant and he would jump and reach for a weapon that wasn’t there.
She endured his fits of rage, his threats to leave her, his bouts of depression.
In 2010, she kept him from getting committed to a mental hospital by becoming his permanent caregiver.
“He had so many medical issues. He had PTSD, he had mental issues, he had panic attacks, you name it. His bedroom was covered in black, there was no light anywhere,” Terri said.
“In many ways he was a little boy,” Terri said. “He had a lot of different personalities, and only I saw who he really was — a soft, caring, loving person who just wanted to be loved.”
One day they were taking a drive, during which Curly would often open up about his life, Terri said. “He said, ‘You know, when we get married, you’re going to have to put me on your car insurance,’” she said. “That was his proposal.”
They were married Oct. 6, 2012. He died in June of 2015, age 65.
“His last eight years of his life were the happiest he had ever been,” Terri said. “And he’s sent me many messages from heaven” in her dreams.
“He became the man God intended him to be,” she said. And she likes to think she played a part in that.
In a small front lawn recently made over by volunteers from Home Depot as part of a program to help veterans and their families, and lined with lawn chairs, Boy Scouts raised a new flag up a recently installed pole, saluted it and said the Pledge of Allegance.
They built a fire in a pit, cut up Meister’s old flag — taking care not to cut through the blue field of stars, because that represents the unity of the 50 states — and burned it piece by piece in the fire, taking it in turns to recite a passage about the meaning of the flag.
“Old flags never die, they just get fired up,” a scoutmaster recited as part of the retirement ceremony.
Terri said the flag ceremonies were, in a way, “closure. When they gave me the grommets” from the retired flag, “it was almost like when they give you the shell casings after a 21-gun salute.”
Walter J. McMahan Jr., also known as Curly, was born Jan. 27, 1950. He enlisted and served as a gunnery sergeant in the Marines from 1968 to 1976, at one point being buried alive for more than 18 hours with two others during a firefight.
He then spent 10 years in the Army as a skip tracer, tracking down absent-without-leave soldiers across the globe and attaining the rank of corporal.
Chief Petty Officer Maurice H. Meister, Terri’s father, enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 2, 1932 and served until August of 1976. He fought as an aviation mechanic in the Pacific theater in World War II and was present when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He died May 7, 2007.
He was never properly in uniform, Terri said, pulling up his pant legs to show off his boots and wearing his hat tilted to the side.
“And I just know that they’re together in heaven now,” she said.