Local Vietnam veterans recall combat and rocky return home
ROCHESTER — As he returned stateside in April 1970 from a year of combat in Vietnam, Jerry McDermott got some coffee at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The memory remains vivid because he didn’t drink any coffee, he wore it — courtesy of two men who threw their cups on him simply because he was clad in a United States Army uniform.
“I was stunned, absolutely stunned,” said McDermott, 69, a member of Fairport’s St. John of Rochester Parish.
Chuck Macaluso, meanwhile, racked up three Purple Hearts during his six months in Vietnam — yet was avoided by fellow veterans after completing nearly three years’ service in 1969.
“There were a lot of veterans’ groups that didn’t want us to be a part, because in their eyes we lost that war,” said Macaluso, 70, from St. John the Evangelist in Greece.
Stan Patykiewicz likewise felt a chill in the air in 1971, when he couldn’t find work at the end of two years of military service, including eight months in Vietnam.
“It started to dawn on me that it was because I was a (Vietnam) veteran,” said Patykiewicz, 68, from Parish of the Holy Family in Gates.
After putting their lives on the line in Vietnam, these men faced a different kind of conflict on home soil — conflict arising from a nation deeply divided about its role in the war.
Even without the public angst, Ron Trovato struggled to readjust to civilian life following two harrowing Vietnam tours during his service from 1968-71.
“In my case, I just buried the memories under mass quantities of alcohol,” said Trovato, 67, a Catholic from Irondequoit who is not affiliated with a parish.
Memories of the Vietnam War and its aftermath were sparked this fall for these local veterans by broadcast of “The Vietnam War,” an 18-hour film directed by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, which aired on PBS Sept. 17-28. Trovato, McDermott, Macaluso and Patykiewicz said they viewed all or most of the documentary, which chronicles the war’s history as well as its enduring impact on U.S. and Vietnamese societies.
McDermott said “The Vietnam War” was a fair and balanced account of the conflict in which he fought, saying media portrayals of this sort are vital in furthering public acceptance and appreciation of U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
“Our generation of veterans needed to have some things validated,” said McDermott, who served in the Army from 1968-71.
Nearly 10 percent of McDermott’s generation logged service in the conflict, which had begun in 1955, following the split of South Vietnam from the communist North along the 17th Parallel. U.S. troops engaged in active combat from 1965-73, but ultimately were unable to stop the spread of communism into South Vietnam; the entire Asian nation has been under communist rule since 1975. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam, while the number of fallen Vietnamese military and civilians has been estimated in the millions.
Macaluso experienced the war’s ferocity front and center. A Marine rifleman, he was stationed at the Phu Bai and Khe Sanh bases from October 1967 to April 1968. During that time he earned his three Purple Hearts for injuries sustained in combat. He noted that one attack by the Viet Cong killed or injured 190 of the 250 men from his base.
McDermott logged one year in Vietnam beginning in March 1969, serving in an Army artillery unit near the Demilitarized Zone separating North Vietnam and South Vietnam. He recalled one rocket and mortar attack that literally sent him airborne, yet he escaped injury.
Trovato was an adviser to the South Vietnamese military in the Mekong Delta during his two Army tours between April 1969 and February 1971. Along with the fighting, Trovato retains harsh memories of highly unpleasant living conditions.
“I can’t stress enough how uncomfortable it was, just walking in the mud. And that was during monsoon season, so you’re wet the whole time. At night the mosquitoes are just incredible,” he said. “I slept in areas where I had rats running over me.”
Patykiewicz served as a Marine ammunition technician in Khe Sanh from September 1970 to May 1971, when troops were already beginning to be sent home. Yet he said it was never clear to him what the U.S. government’s plans were going forward.
“I have a feeling we weren’t quite told what we should have been told,” Patykiewicz remarked.
According the “The Vietnam War,” U.S. political leaders continued to profess that the war could be won while privately admitting otherwise. As the conflict dragged on with little progress and rising military deaths counts, heated and often violent clashes grew nationwide between pro- and anti-war factions. Helping to fan the flames were news reports revealing horrific scenes of carnage in Vietnam involving not only soldiers, but civilians as well.
The public strife resulted in a much different welcome for returning Vietnam soldiers than what had been experienced by veterans of previous wars, forcing vets like McDermott to seek a low profile.
“People were pretty vehement in their views, and you didn’t want to go there with the hassle and fight the war all over again,” McDermott explained, adding that he was frustrated at the hostility he experienced in situations like the Chicago coffee incident. “We didn’t make the policies. We served because our country asked us to,” he remarked.
Macaluso said he and other Vietnam soldiers bore the brunt of anger that was meant for government officials.
“The protesters took it out against the warriors, so to speak,” he said.
Adding to the distress of returning veterans were haunting memories of their combat experiences.
“I was lost, seriously,” Trovato said. “If it wasn’t for my wife, there’s no telling what would have happened.”
Patykiewicz noted that his Vietnam experience left him with “a little bit of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” saying that his anxiety stemmed, in part, from not knowing how many deaths he may have caused.
Macaluso said an oft-used term by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam was “It don’t mean nothing” as a way of coping with horrific experiences during combat. But in the long-term aftermath, he said, “You go back to realizing what you went through.”
“I more or less go back every day,” he added. “There was a lot of yelling, praying and screaming. It really sticks in my mind.”
On the positive side, Macaluso said his healing process has been aided by an increased recognition of Vietnam veterans — a trend that he said was delayed by several years because the war was so controversial. Going forward, he emphasized, it’s vital to recognize not only Vietnam veterans but also soldiers returning from subsequent military engagements.
“When they come home now, they come home as heroes. The people have separated the warrior from the political end of it,” said Macaluso, who serves as president of the board of directors of the Greater Rochester Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The memorial, which opened in 1996 at Rochester’s Highland Park near the southeast corner of Highland and South avenues, salutes the 280 military members from Monroe and its five bordering counties who died in the conflict. In addition, Macaluso led the creation in 2004 of a Veterans’ Walk at the memorial that honors all living and deceased veterans.
Further acknowledging the Vietnam soldiers are several chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America within the Diocese of Rochester: Chapter 20 (Rochester), Chapters 205 and 704 (Auburn), Chapter 480 (Owego) and Chapter 377 (Dryden), as well as Chapter 803 (Elmira), which houses a Vietnam War Museum at 1200 Davis St.
McDermott, Trovato and Patykiewicz — who also are active in veterans’ groups — said connecting with fellow Vietnam veterans — and newly positive public recognition — has helped them feel more proud of their service.
“I’ve got a Vietnam veteran’s hat and I’ve had people come up and thank me. I say, ‘You were worth every minute of it,’” Trovato said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s that negative aspect anymore. We speak at schools and everything now.”
Still, as another Veteran’s Day approaches, Trovato acknowledged that some demons about Vietnam will never disappear. On the other hand, he said he’s in a much better place than when his service ended.
“It’s a vindication of the human spirit. The flame never went out. This has a lot to do with God,” he said. “I can’t imagine people coming home without having that faith.”