BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – KAUNAKAKAI, MOLOKAI – Larry Helm, a well-known native Hawaiian activist, former political candidate and military veteran on the island of Molokai, has died after a battle with cancer.
Larry, 70, spearheaded the effort on behalf of Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, to build a 3,000 square foot veterans center on Wharf Road just outside the island’s main town of Kaunakakai. (see related story: ‘Bureaucratic abuse’: Hawaii vets wait a decade for center, services)
The Vietnam veteran, who long helped other veterans obtain the healthcare and financial services they needed, had no idea of the bureaucracy he’d encounter trying to get the center built.
Larry and a team of volunteers began more than a decade ago to try to get the permits for the center, but just obtaining the go ahead from the Molokai Planning Commission and Maui County took over 7 years and more than doubled the cost of the project from its original estimate of $250,000. The non-profit won $200,000 and was allowed to go forward with the project after filing a complaint in U.S. District Court against Maui County. The mayor also had to issue an apology to the veterans for the debacle.
After Larry fell ill several weeks ago, his daughter Nichol Helm Kahale and his son Michael Helm took over the effort to raise the final $100,000 needed to finish the project in hopes it could be completed in time for their father to see the official opening.
They raised $25,000 at a June fundraiser. While Larry was able to see much of the project completed, the parking lot, sewer system and kitchen appliances must be finalized before the center opens to veterans.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-HI, a personal friend of the Helm family, gave a speech from the House floor this week about Larry’s heroics. (Video available here.)
On Friday, Gabbard said she was deeply saddened to learn of Larry’s death.
“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,” Gabbard said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this terribly difficult time.”
Gabbard acknowledged what many on the island of Molokai already know: Larry’s absence will be felt among the entire Molokai community and across the state.
Gabbard, a veteran herself, pledged to continue the fight to get the center funded and opened.
“As I promised him when I last saw him a few weeks ago on Molokai, 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.
Larry was the oldest of seven children, and many who know him say that his humble start in life taught him the importance of hard work, service, love, compassion and the importance of helping the “little guy.”
Larry attended Chaminade University of Honolulu for two years in the 1960s before being drafted into the Vietnam War where he served in heavy combat. When he returned, he watched many of his fellow veterans unable to get the services they needed. He also saw how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated by many in society.
The Helm family had many challenges over the years, and Larry was always in the forefront fighting for justice.
In 1977, Larry lost his younger brother, George Jarrett Helm Jr., considered one of Hawaii’s top musicians of all time, and a political leader and native Hawaiian activist. George, who was fighting for many native Hawaiian causes including trying to get the U.S. military to stop bombing the island of Kahoolawe for “target practice”, disappeared on March 7, 1977. Many in Hawaii believed George was murdered because of his political activism, especially his involvement with Protect Kahoʻolawe Ohana, the most organized and outspoken group against the bombings.
Wikipedia recounts his disappearance: “…George Helm set out — first by boat, then by surfboard — to Kahoʻolawe, with Maui fisherman and park ranger Kimo Mitchell and water expert Billy Mitchell (unrelated). The next day, the boat belonging to Maxwell Han from Hana that was scheduled to meet Helm, Kimo Mitchell, and Billy Mitchell and return them to Maui was discovered swamped. Apparently someone had removed the plug out of the small Boston Whaler.”
According to Billy Mitchell, the three decided to return to Maui by surfboard, but because the weather turned bad, he took the long board and headed back to Kaho’olawe to get help.
Billy Mitchell said it took him almost the whole day to get back to the island and tell the Navy of the situation, and that Helm and Kimo Mitchell were last seen near the tiny crescent-shaped islet of Molokini.
Billy Mitchell was the only survivor of the three and the only one to recount the story with investigators. But his version of the story – and the details he offered – did not make sense to many of the family members of the missing men.
Larry’s daughter Nichol recounts that her father worked tirelessly with FBI investigators, politicians and the police force researching George’s murder or ‘disappearance.’
“He didn’t fear speaking up. A lesson he always taught to his children. He had already faced the end of the barrel in Vietnam and the mafia, organized crime, military and political pundits couldn’t intimidate him,” Nichol said of her father.
Teresa Tico, a local filmmaker and attorney, who knew Larry, said: “Larry never stopped searching for the truth. He believed he found the truth, but was still trying to find out more. What happened was unthinkable, to imagine there was a conspiracy, it was unthinkable, but these things do happen.”
There would be many more life challenges for Larry and his family. The latest go around with cancer that ultimately took his life was not Larry’s first. When he was in his 40s, he had to undergo radiation and surgery to beat cancer.
“Financially, it was tough on the family. He lived and worked on Oahu and sought cancer treatment primarily on his own. While mom was taking care of a young family on Molokai, dad would have to walk to catch the bus to get treatment at the hospital. At times, weak and weary, but strong and faithful. He beat it,” Nichol said.
In a 12-year span, Helm underwent two open heart surgeries to replace a heart valve.
His daughter recounts that her father also “survived” personal attacks from Hawaii’s “political machine” while running for office in the ‘first ever seat’ for the House of Representative (Molokai, Lanai & West Maui).
“He remained true to himself and never sold out,” Nichol said.
Larry became a successful small businessman, operating the Molokai Wagon Ride in Mapulehu. But getting permission to operate the wagon tour took 11 public hearings and more financial burden.
However the most difficult challenge in Larry’s life came with the news that his daughter, Natalie Helm, had died in a plane crash at the age of 15, along with her high school volleyball teammates, two coaches and 10 other people.
“This was probably the most difficult thing any parent could endure,” Nichol said. “My dad and mom were tough, but this one – well this one – you’d think would do anyone in. He was the leader for most of the families. Helping them deal with lawyers and making sure the airline industry was held accountable. He was a fighter and was not going to let his daughter and all those who perished on Flight #1712 die in vain.”
Nichol recounts that her father’s “true calling” came in the mid 90s to help with care and providing services to the many Molokai Veterans.
“He is the commander for the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans organization and has led it to what it is today. He also worked endlessly and unselfishly towards building the first Veterans Center on Molokai. He took on the arduous task of dealing with the County and the red tape that goes along with it,” Nichol said. “We hope his dream will come to fruition soon.”