Vietnam Veterans Receive Overdue Recognition

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A ceremony Monday in Bridgeville honoring 90 Vietnam veterans from the South Hills was already poignant when a plaintive, live bugle rendition of “Taps” took it to another level.

It wasn’t just the emotion and memories stirred by the tune, sometimes known by the first line of its lyrics, “Day is Done.” It’s that it was played by Bob Szoszorek, 67, of Carrick, a Purple Heart recipient for wounds he received during his 1968-69 tour as an Army soldier when a Chinese Claymore mine exploded near him. He spent six months in a hospital and suffered through difficult rehabilitation. He lost the use of his right leg — he now walks with a cane — and has a plate in his head.

But when he returned stateside, there was no “Thank you for your service” from a grateful nation, no bands, no parades. Instead, “we got spit on, called baby killers,” he recalled.

That’s why the ceremony honoring Vietnam-era veterans and commemorating the 50th anniversary of that unpopular, divisive war was so meaningful to him and others who were honored.

“It means a lot,” he said, before packing up his bugle.

The ceremony was conducted as part of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the Secretary of Defense to support programs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War by honoring its veterans on a national, state and local level.

State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Jefferson Hills, who sponsored the packed, hour-long ceremony at Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, said he was honored to recognize Vietnam veterans.

“Personally, why I’m doing it is because when I came back from serving in Iraq, we walked through an honor line at the airport and people were clapping,” said the former lieutenant in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “When the Vietnam veterans came back, they were not treated well at all.”

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Mr. Reschenthaler said his welcome home was possible only because Vietnam veterans fought on the homefront for honoring all veterans.

“They are still making a difference in how veterans are treated for PTSD and getting veterans prepared for re-entering civilian life after being in theater. They have never stopped serving, it just turned into a different capacity.

“We owe a lot to this generation. I’m glad it has come around and they are being given the respect they are due,” said Mr. Reschenthaler, who presented each veteran with a lapel pin honoring their “service, valor, sacrifice.”  

Tom Cusick, 70, of Mt. Washington, who served in Vietnam from 1966-67 as a lance corporal in the Marines, was moved by the recognition.

“We were more or less forgotten and neglected when we came back,” he said. But he was happy to report that about a decade ago, citizens began thanking Vietnam veterans for their service. Last year, he and other members of the Vietnam Veterans Inc. honor guard couldn’t believe the ovation they received before a University of Pittsburgh football game at Heinz Field.

“The Pitt students applauded and applauded and applauded. It just kept going on and on. We were impressed they gave that recognition to us,” he said.

“It brought tears to my eyes. To hear that ovation really hits you in the heart,” recalled another honor guard member, Clem Blazewick, 72, of Whitehall. He left for Vietnam on Christmas Day 1965 and served as a medical laboratory technician in a hospital in Long Bien.

“It was very hard,” he recalled sadly. “It’s the hardest thing to see someone die and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Unseen scars like that remain, all these years later.

Only five years ago did John Weinheimer, 70, Brookline, seek help for the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered as a Marine corporal, serving in Vietnam from 1967-68 and taking part in fighting back the deadly Tet offensive.

“We were trying to break their supply routes. We were getting hit on a daily basis,” Mr. Weinheimer recalled.

For decades, he said, his wife told him the “anxiety and horrible, horrible dreams” he suffered were signs of PTSD.

“The Marine Corps teaches you to suck it up,” he said. Only when his fellow Vietnam veterans told him that maybe he should get help did he do so. Today, he is 70 percent disabled from hearing loss and PTSD.

He’s pleased and honored by the recognition Vietnam veterans are now receiving, including Monday’s ceremony.

“We go to schools, and the students ask us very intelligent, thoughtful questions and are very interested,” he said. “That makes us feel really good because this younger generation coming up will carry [the memory of] us on. [Our] grandchildren will carry us on.”

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. Twitter: michaelafuoco

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