Vietnam vets honored on Remembrance Day

Staff Writer

 A veteran receives a medal recognizing his service to the nation during ceremonies marking Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day on May 7. State military awards were presented to nearly four dozen veterans for their service in World War II and Vietnam. A veteran receives a medal recognizing his service to the nation during ceremonies marking Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day on May 7. State military awards were presented to nearly four dozen veterans for their service in World War II and Vietnam. The afternoon sun beat down on throngs of veterans and their families as some of New Jersey’s men and women who served in the Vietnam War decades ago were recognized on Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day.

On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, veterans were awarded New Jersey’s Distinguished Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Meritorious Service Medal during a somber and bittersweet afternoon at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Holmdel.

Joseph Formola, chaplain of the New Jersey State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, began the May 7 ceremony with an invocation in which he noted the cold reception veterans received from fellow Americans upon returning home from Vietnam.

 PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHAEL MCMAHON PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHAEL MCMAHON “We knew the bitterness of a homecoming that made us feel like criminals,” Formola said. “We saw the rejection … from our government and our nation in general.

“However, in time, the people of this nation realized that we bravely obeyed the orders that we were given. Today, we find our nation engaged in another unpopular war. However … it is the war — and not those who are serving — that is unpopular.”

Jess Le Vine, a board member with the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation, delivered brief remarks prior to the medal ceremony — which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the memorial’s construction — and thanked the veterans and those who volunteered to make the memorial a reality.

Le Vine echoed Formola’s acknowledgment of the sacrifices Vietnam veterans have made both abroad and at home.

“[Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day] is also a chance for us to offer thanks to our state’s Vietnam veterans, many of whom were never officially thanked or acknowledged for their service,” Le Vine said. “It was a lesson we learned the hard way. Regardless of our thoughts about our nation’s foreign policy, we should always support those who serve in the military. We owe every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine our gratitude for their service and sacrifice.”

Michael Ellis, a Vietnam War veteran and Long Branch resident, said he felt a sense of vindication following the ceremony.

“I think it’s wonderful that the Vietnam veterans are being recognized,” Ellis said. “When we first came out of the war, it wasn’t a glory type of war at the time. Now, being recognized for it, it’s appreciated.” Ellis, a Navy veteran, said when he first came home, he did his best to put the war behind him and move forward with his life, attending college and eventually marrying. It wasn’t until later years that he openly recalled his service and became involved with veterans organizations. “I just went on with my life and didn’t think about anything to do with the war,” Ellis said. “I don’t know when it was when we got recognized more and more, but I joined the [Veterans of Foreign Wars], and now I stay involved with anything I can do with the military.”

Dwight Staehler, a Vietnam War veteran and Somerset resident, recalled the initial difficulty Vietnam veterans faced when seeking to join some chapters of veterans organizations upon returning home.

“We even had a problem within our own group of people because it wasn’t an ‘official’ war like World War II was,” Staehler said.

“Now guys have mixed emotions when somebody sees them on the street, wearing their hat, and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ In the older generation, some guys feel like, ‘Well, where were you when we first came back?’ ”

Ed Marczak, a Vietnam War veteran from South Amboy, watched the medal presentations from afar, dressed in a bright orange shirt imprinted with an image of a lifeless palm tree.

Emblazoned on his shirt were the words, “It won’t hurt you. It’s just to kill plants,” a reference to the use of the defoliant Agent Orange and the resulting illnesses that developed in some who served in Vietnam.

According to Marczak, the initial reception of veterans was so poor that many chose to put the past behind them, as Ellis did.

“Part of the problem is guys are now stepping out, whereas before they stayed at home,” Marczak said. “For a lot of years before … most of us didn’t join [Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)] until we were in our late 40s or 50s.

“A lot of these guys here just came out and realized that it is time for some recognition.”

For many, their hesitation was the result of animosity felt after the war’s end, he said.

“In our generation, people blamed the war on us. Nowadays, they blame the war on politicians, and they respect the soldiers and sailors,” Marczak said.

Roger Carroll, a Vietnam War veteran and Edison resident, stressed the importance of expanding communication and strengthening the network of veterans to bring more of them out of obscurity.

“I just joined VVA last year and I didn’t even know it existed,” Carroll said. “I find more people are doing the same thing.”

Jim Hixon, also a veteran of the Vietnam War and a Dunellen resident, stood alongside Marczak and Carroll, solemnly noting how many medals had been awarded posthumously.

“We are dying off at a very fast rate and it is heartbreaking that they were not recognized before they passed,” Hixon said. “We are here to honor these guys. You know, we have walked in their footsteps and we know what they went through, so it is an honor to be here.”