Even 43 years after the conclusion of the war in Vietnam, many veterans still have a stinging memory of their return.
The war often elicited bad feelings that Americans inappropriately dumped on the shoulders of the men and women who served.
“The Vietnam War divided our nation politically. It was often a bitter and violent dispute. But it was an injustice by my generation to treat the warrior for what was a political argument,” said County Executive Tom DeGise at Pershing Field in Jersey City on March 29. “When they came back, we never properly thanked them for their service.”
Jersey City’s was the first of a series of ceremonies held around Hudson County and involved the placing of wreaths in West New York, North Bergen, Secaucus, Kearny, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne.
In a similar ceremony held at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in West New York, Commissioner Susan Colacurcio said this was a long overdue tribute to those who served, some of whom had made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I’m not sure people fully understand the significant part these veterans played in order that we have our freedoms.” Colacurcio said.
War vs. warrior
The date the war ended is in dispute, but not people’s feeling about the veterans. In 2012, President Barack Obama declared March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day.
America technically withdrew its troops on March 29, 1973, ending the war, but for most veterans who served in the conflict, the last day of the war happened on April 30, 1975 when the North Vietnamese overran the south, and the final Americans were airlifted out just ahead of the takeover.
“The date was April 30, 1975. The North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon. South Vietnam surrendered the same day, thus ending America’s involvement in our nation’s longest war at that time,” said Mike Wilson of the Bayonne American Legion at a ceremony held near the Bayonne Vietnam Memorial on First Street later in the day.
“While the date may be in dispute,” said Joann Northgrave, director of the Hudson County Department of Veterans Affairs, “our sentiments are not. We pay tribute to those who served.”
Left its imprint on a generation
Although Americans were involved with the Vietnam conflict from its inception after the conclusion of World War II, most historians date the beginning of the Americanization of the war from Jan. 12, 1962 when U.S. Army pilots airlifted more than 1,000 South Vietnamese service members over jungle and underbrush to capture a National Liberation Front stronghold near Saigon. In what was then considered America’s longest conflict, an estimated 2.7 million to 3 million Americans served.
New Jersey established its own Remembrance Day in 1991 to honor veterans who served during the Vietnam era from 1959 to 1975. More than 200,000 New Jersey residents served in the armed forces during that period.
Hoboken Freeholder Anthony Romano also said the date of remembrance did not matter as long as the veterans are remembered. “The fact that they were not treated right when they came home is a disgrace,” Romano said.
“It’s never too late to say thank you,” Jersey City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman said.
Jersey City Councilman Michael Yun, who was born and raised in Korea, said Korean and Vietnam veterans are close to his heart.
“They did a great job,” he said. “They responded when their country called.”
Some remember, some never knew
In North Bergen, about two dozen veterans gathered to paid tribute at a ceremony held in James Braddock Park.
Freeholder Anthony Vainieri said he was still in school in the waning years of the war, but saw some of his neighbors, and remembered mothers crying as their sons went off to war, hoping they would return.
“Fortunately, they did, and the tears shed then were tears of joy,” he said.
Retired Surrogate Judge Don DeLeo quoted President George Washington, noting that the real tribute to those who serve is how they are treated when they return.
Many Vietnam veterans had to fight to get treatment for the after effects of the war, he said, noting that veterans of later wars owe many of their benefits to Vietnam Veterans who persisted in forcing the government to live up to its promise for treatment.
DeGise said Hudson County had about 51 homeless Vietnam Veterans as detailed by a homeless count taken in 2015.
“We have found homes for 20 of them,” DeGise said. “We are committed to finding homes for them all.”
Vietnam Veterans were not treated right
In Secaucus, Mayor Michael Gonnelli said, “This is a special day, paying tribute to people who served with honor.”
Phil Papa, who serves as the commander of the Secaucus VFW, said some Vietnam Veterans were “shunned and neglected.” Most simply came home, took off their uniforms, got a job and got on with their lives.
Papa said he remembered the terrible looks he got when he arrived back at the airport in Los Angeles.
Of the nearly three million who served, 303,600 were wounded, 56,267 were killed, Papa said. Of those who survived to come home, only about 700,000 are still alive today.
“Some of the veterans died in their 60s,” he said, possibly due to the impacts of chemicals used to clear the jungle, emotional turmoil, wounds and other unresolved issues from the war.
Wilson said 230,000 members of the army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) died in the war with 1,169,763 wounded. North Vietnam and the Vietcong suffered about 1.1 million killed and an unknown number of wounded. At the end of the war, there were 1,948 Americans missing in action. This has been reduced to about 1,264 today. Douglas O’Neill, of Bayonne, is still unaccounted for.
“No group of veterans has been disrespected more coming home,” said Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis. “If not for veterans groups a lot of this would have been forgotten or pushed aside. I’m proud to be at this ceremony to honor them.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.