By Sean Barron
One of the photographs on Donna Mokrovich’s cellphone shows her brother as a clean-cut young man with a big smile.
A casual glance might suggest John Biondillo seems at peace, but it gives no hint of what was to come.
“He was my baby brother. He was a great kid — very well-liked with a lot of friends,” Mokrovich, of Poland, said of Biondillo, who was killed July 27, 1967, at age 21 in the Vietnam War.
Biondillo was one of 100 Mahoning Valley soldiers killed in that war who were honored during Sunday’s 20th annual Laying of the Roses ceremony in Youngstown’s Central Square.
Also remembered during the 90-minute outdoor gathering were area prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action and comrades who died from service-related illnesses.
Hosting the event were American Legion Post 472, the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 135, AMVets Post 44 and the International Association of Workforce Professionals’ Youngstown Chapter.
Biondillo, who attended East and Ursuline high schools, was married Dec. 27, 1966, seven months to the day before he lost his life, said Mokrovich, adding that he was stationed in Georgia.
She also recalled having spent a few days with her younger brother before he was deployed.
“We just enjoyed each other’s company,” said Mokrovich, who came to the ceremony with her husband, Bill. “He was kind of depressed about leaving but wanted a free country.”
Biondillo was tough but also softhearted and always available to help anyone who sought him, said Leo H. Connelly Jr. of Boardman, who served two years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam, and was a close friend of Biondillo’s.
“If he had a dime, he’d give it to you and borrow a nickel,” said Connelly, junior vice commander of the Disabled American Veterans’ Youngstown Chapter. “Johnny was all about family and country and he served both well.”
As the name of each fallen comrade was read, loved ones or fellow veterans placed a red rose at the base of a memorial on which the soldiers’ names are inscribed. Some family members touched the names of their lost loved ones before silently laying the rose.
The Vietnam War may have been the nation’s longest and most controversial war, but the young men and women who served did so bravely, proudly and unselfishly, said Tom Burke, Vietnam Veterans of America’s state council president and the ceremony’s keynote speaker.
“They told their families, ‘Don’t worry about me; I’ll be all right. Take care of each other.’” Burke told the somber crowd.
Nevertheless, many returned home only to find that their sacrifices were soon forgotten by most people, he continued.
“That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of all wars,” Burke said, adding that such veterans and their families deserve the country’s support, thanks and respect.
Burke, who’s also a Navy veteran, noted that 58,272 names are engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., then concluded by reading a poem that describes how many soldiers made tremendous sacrifices for a nation that gave them little in return.
Also part of the gathering was a small Table of Remembrance set for one person, which included a white tablecloth, a lemon slice, a red rose, an inverted glass, salt and an empty chair — and much symbolism.
The tablecloth denoted the pure motives with which many served in Vietnam; the lemon was a reminder of their bitter fate; the rose stood for loved ones keeping their faith, and the salt was symbolic of family members’ tears as they await the return of their loved one, explained Ray Ornelas, senior vice president of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3538 of Struthers.
In addition, Ornelas said, the glass and chair represented soldiers’ inability to make a toast and the fact they’re not with family, respectively.
The ceremony also featured the Posting and Retiring of Colors by the Tri State Marine Corps League.