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50 years after Vietnam

November 24, 2018 GMT

STAMFORD — When the Army summoned Ralph Del Vecchio to Vietnam, his father and uncle drove him to the train station.

With their goodbyes, they delivered a decree.

“Don’t disgrace your name.”

Del Vecchio, just 18, understood the weight of it — his father and uncle had fought in World War II.

The words went with him to Camp Holloway, a helicopter base near Pleiku, where he was called to stand guard duty, lay mines, join search-and-destroy missions, transport supplies, and hunt the Viet Cong in the jungles of the Central Highlands.

After 11 months of sleeping in the rain; sleeping sitting up, back-to-back with a fellow guard; drinking anything but the water, infected with dysentery, Del Vecchio — a month left in his tour — was watching a movie one night with other soldiers in a tent at Camp Holloway.

A sergeant walked in, turned off the projector, and called out two names. The edict Del Vecchio received from his elders was about to be tested.

Untold histories

Now 72, Del Vecchio tells the story in a book, “An American Town and the Vietnam War,” in which father-and-son authors Tony and Matt Pavia recount the experiences of Stamford residents who served in the controversial conflict that played itself out on American television half a century ago.

Tony Pavia, a retired history teacher and Stamford High principal, and Matt Pavia, an English teacher at Darien High, launched the book this month. It is the only city history of its kind.

Little is known nationwide about Vietnam soldiers, who cycled into the war in one-year tours. Towns lost track of who served and where, and whether they died or returned.

For most of his life, Del Vecchio thought that’s the way it should be.

The stories are hard to tell.

“The sergeant who called me out of the movie that night was from the South. He didn’t like Northerners, especially Italian Northerners,” Del Vecchio said. “He mispronounced my name on purpose. He said, ‘Da Vecchio, report to GR.’”

It stands for Graves Registration — processing the bodies of fallen comrades.

Dreaded duty

There were soldiers who were trained to do it, but that night in July 1967, they were in short supply. The war in the Central Highlands “was hot,” Del Vecchio said, and trucks full of bodies were rolling in.

He and the other soldier were assigned the special duty and directed to four large tents.

“They handed us masks soaked in Aqua Velva” after-shave lotion to cloak the smell, Del Vecchio said. “The other guy walked out. I thought, ‘Where did he go? He has an order.’”

In his head he heard: “Don’t disgrace your name.” He stayed.

“I had picked up the dead before, in the field,” Del Vecchio said. “But this was different.”

He pressed his hand on this chest pocket, where he kept a Padre Pio prayer card given to him by his mother, and began unloading bodies. Some were rigid, others badly bloated. He had to work to fit them into the bags. Some bodies were in pieces, and he matched the parts as best he could.

“It took all night. There were almost 80 bodies. I bagged them and loaded them back on the truck,” he said. “I prayed the whole time. ‘These poor souls. Please, Lord, stop me from going insane.’ Then it was morning and I said, ‘My job is done.’”

Death flight

But the sergeant appeared. He told Del Vecchio he had to drive the bodies to Plaiku. There, Del Vecchio loaded them onto a C-130 cargo plane, and approached the cockpit to ride with the pilot to the main airport in Saigon.

“The pilot said, ‘You’re not authorized to sit here. You sit with them,’” and motioned to the bodies.

But the cargo area was filled, so Del Vecchio had to sit on the body bags. The stench was overpowering, maggots everywhere. The flight took an hour and a half.

“We landed near this big building that looks like a processing plant, with all these morticians from the U.S. I was overwhelmed,” Del Vecchio said. “They said, ’Unload the bodies and take all their P.E.”

Personal effects. He had to unzip each body bag and look for them — a two-day job.

“I took their letters, their rings, their money — whatever they had, and put it in little green bags,” Del Vecchio said. “I knew they could not have open caskets when they got home, and I would be one of the last to see them. I thought, ‘I have to care for them.’”

Many died eyes open, expressions on their faces, a bullet fired close-range into the head. It likely meant the Viet Cong found them wounded and assassinated them, Del Vecchio said.

“That is the hardest part of all of it,” he said. “It was a lot of young guys who had been in-country only a few days.”

Soon after returning from Graves Registration duty, Del Vecchio was told to pack his things. He was going home. He thought, “But I am home,” he said.

“I was with my brothers. Where else was home?” he said. “But the next day, I was in the United States, still in my jungle fatigues.”

War demonstrators threw eggs at him and other soldiers at an airport in Tacoma, Wash. In the New York airport, he got such looks that he tried to hide. Back in Stamford, where he was a member of a masons’ union, no one would give him a job.

Blood money

A few months after Del Vecchio returned, a letter arrived from the Army. It was a check for $82 for Graves Registration duty.

Fifty years later, Del Vecchio still hasn’t cashed it.

“I saw it and I thought, ‘I don’t want this money. It isn’t right. I took those guys’ dog tags. I took their wives’ pictures out of their pockets. I tucked them in for eternity. It was an honor.’”

But he saw their faces in his mind all the time. Twenty years after returning from Vietnam, Del Vecchio joined VFW Post 6933 in Darien, where he found new brothers and saw that there was help for his nightmares. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but resisted regular treatment until Sept. 11, 2001, when America was attacked by terrorists.

“It was something about the deaths of all the innocent people,” Del Vecchio said.

Now he manages his PTSD with help from a Veterans Administration doctor, and meets each week with his VFW brothers. He worries about veterans, whose suicide rate is significantly higher than that of civilians.

“We try to stuff everything down,” Del Vecchio said. “But it comes back to you.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296