Former New York State Assemblyman John Behan (R-Montauk), a Vietnam War veteran, U.S. Wheelchair Olympics gold medalist, and longtime champion of the East End, died on Friday. He was 76.
Born and raised on Long Island, Behan graduated from East Hampton High School in 1963 after serving as president of the student body, then joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served with the Sixth and Seventh Fleets before joining the First Marine Division for a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965, when he lost both of his legs in combat. After retiring at the with the rank of sergeant and learning to walk again with the use of artificial limbs, he won gold medals in the javelin, and medaled in shotput, discus and as a member of the basketball team on the U.S. Wheelchair Olympics team in 1972 and 1976 before starting his career in politics. He first served as East Hampton Town Assessor and then succeeded state Assemblyman Perry Duryea as the South Fork’s Albany representative in 1978, serving for 16 years before becoming the director of the State Division of Veterans Affairs in the Gov. George Pataki administration.
“At a time when these terms are thrown around far too carelessly, John was a true American hero and patriot,” said state Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), Behan’s predecessor. “His life was dedicated to serving his country, state and community.”
For his service to the Marine Corps, Behan was decorated seven times and was honored with the Conspicuous Service Cross, New York State’s highest military honor. He participated in the Fourth Pan American Games held in Peru and the first International Games for the Disabled held in Canada. As an assemblyman, Behan organized a Vietnam Veterans Caucus and received national recognition as State Legislature of the Year for his advocacy.
“His efforts were crucial in getting the public to separate the plight and needs of veterans from the politics of the war,” Thiele recalled. “His impassioned speech on the floor of the Assembly led to the creation of the first Assembly Stand Committee on Veterans Affairs, of which he became the ranking member. “
In 1985, Behan led the historic New York State Delegation to Vietnam and later that year was tapped to lead the “Welcome Home Parade to Vietnam Veterans” down the famed canyon of heroes alongside then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
“Every one of us can point to a few people in our lives who were mentors that truly made a difference in the trajectory of our lives,” Thiele said. “John Behan was one of those people in my life. As a recent law school graduate in 1979, John took a chance on me and hired me to be his counsel. We worked closely together for almost three years on bills relating to justice for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, helping our local police, protecting our fishermen, and even [the proposed creation of] Peconic County.”
He is survived by his wife Marilyn and three children, Jason, Jack, and Bridget. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.