By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
Carl A. Nunziato, a Youngstown attorney, had been in Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., for two years recuperating after losing his legs in November 1966 during his second combat tour in Vietnam.
While there, he and several other veterans were invited to tour Ford's Theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated.
Protests against the Vietnam War reached him in his wheelchair, even at that event.
“People tried to spit on us,” he said.
“I had more traumatic stress from that day than anything that happened during two combat tours in Vietnam. I’m over it now, but it left me in shock then,” said Nunziato, who served eight years in the Army including a tour in Thailand during the Laotian Crisis and two tours in Vietnam, in 1965 and 1966.
“We had a bad reception when we got home,” understated Nunziato, one of several Vietnam vets who talked about the meaning and importance of Memorial Day and how it helps them heal over time and helped the nation begin to appreciate their sacrifices.
First and foremost, Nunziato said, Memorial Day is a time to honor the 1.2 million who have died in all of America’s wars.
Memorial Day or Decoration Day is a federal holiday in the U.S. The holiday is observed every year on the last Monday of May.
The Vietnam War veterans, those who served in combat “in country” and stateside or elsewhere in noncombat roles, say Memorial Day is a time to honor the country’s military war dead and an opportunity for people in the country, particularly veterans, to education young people onthe meaning of the holiday.
“It’s our duty to impress upon younger generations its importance ... to make sure they understand that the freedoms and pleasures and opportunities they have came from the sacrifices of veterans,” said Nunziato.
Joining Nunziato in a group interview were Marine Corps Vietnam veterans Roger Bacon of Lisbon, who served “in country” in 1967-1968 with Charlie Co., 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division and received three Purple Hearts; and Ken Jakubek of Austintown.
Also participating were Air Force and Middle East War veteran Susan Krawchyk, head of the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission; and Leo Connelly, decorated Army Vietnam veteran. Interviewed separately was retired Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich, Air Force Vietnam veteran.
Bacon described his coming-home experience. “I was fortunate ... I didn’t get spit on. But when I came home, we were told to not wear our uniforms to avoid problems,” he said.
“All I wanted was to come home and blend in. I hardly mentioned that I had been in Vietnam. We went almost 20 years before anybody recognized who we were. Even other veterans groups didn’t make us feel welcome,” he said.
“Part of the problem was we didn’t come home in large groups ... we came home as individuals,” he said.
Nunziato was in law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when the riots at Kent State University occurred in the spring of 1970, and four students were killed.
“The feelings were so anti-veterans that I didn’t admit I had been in Vietnam,” Nunziato said.
“It’s humbling to be here with Nunziato and Bacon,” said Jakubek, who remained stateside during his tour working on developments, including armaments, to make Marine Corps helicopters safer and more efficient in war. “I felt I made some contribution to the war effort,” he said.
“Memorial Day is about the guys who didn’t come back. It’s about honor, courage and commitment. When I see the American flag, it represents the blood spilled,” said Jakubek.
One of the purposes of Memorial Day today is to see to it that veterans are not treated like the Vietnam War veterans were, said Bacon.
The veterans say the education effort seems to be working. “We’re doing our job now educating people,” said Connelly.
Today, it is not unusual for people to thank veterans they may not even know for their service when they see them in uniform or wearing their VFW or American Legion or AMVETS and Marine Corps League gear, Connelly said.
“I know Vietnam veterans were treated totally different from today,” said Krawchyk, a 25-year Army veteran.
“When I came back from a tour in Iraq in 2006 people applauded me as I walked through the airport,” she said.
Memorial Day is a time to think of these things and recognize veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, said Milich, who served on active duty with the Air Force from May 1967 to September 1971 and 24 years reserve at the Youngstown Reserve Air Station in Vienna.
“They appreciate the change in attitudes,” he said of the Vietnam veterans.
“It took from the end of the Vietnam War to the start of Desert Storm for them to start dealing with their problems and for people to begin to appreciate their sacrifices,” said Milich.
Before, they didn’t advertise that they were Vietnam War veterans. “Now, they feel proud,” said Milich.