A Vietnam Soldier Cares For The Dead, But When He Returns Home, Who Cares For Him?
The following story is just one of 29 Vietnam veterans’ stories that appear in a recently published book, An American Town and The Vietnam War: Stories of Service from Stamford, Connecticut, written by a father and son team, Tony and Matt Pavia. Tony is a retired History teacher and Matt currently teaches English at Darien (Connecticut) High School.
With this well-researched book they have done a great service to their hometown, Stamford, Connecticut and to its Vietnam veterans. I was honored to be one of those Stamford, Connecticut veterans included in this book.
In July of 1967, Ralph Del Vecchio was stationed at Camp Holloway, a helicopter base in the Central Highlands of S. Vietnam, near Pleiku. His story revolves around a just a couple of days late in his year long tour to Vietnam, a couple of very difficult days.
In July of 1967, the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies, the Viet Cong, were stepping up their attacks around the country. It was a very hot and a very deadly period of time. The bodies and the wounded numbers were beginning to skyrocket. One evening, while watching a movie in his hootch with a couple of other soldiers, Del Vecchio was ordered to go to Graves Registration to help out bagging the bodies of a large number of American soldiers who had been killed in a recent very intense, large scale battle.
He was an “old timer” in country, as it was close to the end of his tour. He had seen death in the field before, many times, but this experience was different. Many of the bodies were already decomposing, most were badly damaged. He had the difficult job of trying to bag those bodies, sometimes having to deal with trying to put pieces of bodies together.
He and the others who were doing this were issued masks infused with aftershave, to cut down on the stench they were surrounded by in that Graves Registration tent. This went on for hours.
That was hard enough, but then he was ordered to fly with those bodies on a C-130 to the big Tan Son Nhut airfield near Saigon. He had to fly in the cargo bay with all of those bodies. The morticians at Tan Son Nhut told him to collect the personal effects from each of the body bags.
He had to open each one and place those personal items into small green bags.
Del Vecchio, began to feel responsible for each one of these fallen brothers. He had to unzip each body bag and retrieve things like letters, rings and any other personal effect and place them into individual green bags tagged with their identification information. He realized that most of these men would not be seen in open caskets when they got home, that he was the last to see them.
He thought to himself, “I have to care for them.”
He told the Pavias, “That was the hardest part of it all. It was a lot of young guys who had been in country only a few days.”
After these harrowing hours were over, he returned to Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands. Not long after getting back he was told to pack his things, he was going home.
At first he misunderstood those words. Those who have been to war, especially in combat, will understand his reaction here. He thought, “But I am home. I was with my brothers. Where else is home?”
War makes us live in the moment. No one knows the fragile and finite reality of life better than those who have lived on the very border of life and instant, often violent death on a 24/7/365 basis. The threat of death is in the very air you breathe. Those you are with become your whole world. You all live in the intense reality of each moment and the brotherhood that arises out of that experience is like no other relationship in life.
He was home as far as he was concerned. But, no. What he hadn’t immediately recognized was that he had just received his orders to go back to “The World,” to that home he had grown up in, Stamford, Connecticut.
In this reality his story is universal too. Like so many Vietnam veterans, to his amazement, he found himself really at home. Within the short span of a day, he arrived in the United States, still dressed in his jungle fatigues. And the reception he received at the airport, like that of so many of us returning from Vietnam, was one of hostility, rather than welcome.
He found that no one wanted to hire him at home either, due to the feelings that people had about Vietnam veterans at that time.
But the kicker for him was that a few months after he was home he received a check from the Dept. of Defense for $82.00. It was payment for those few days he had served with Graves Registration back in Vietnam. Because of his memories of those days and his commitment to those fallen whom he had served, he felt awkward about this money.
He told the Pavias, “I don’t want this money. It wasn’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.”
Del Vecchio still has that check. He never cashed it in.
Del Vecchio’s story has another universal element in it too. He came home bearing the unseen wounds of war, the psychological and soul wounds. Like most of us, he kept those to himself as much as possible. Twenty years after coming home he joined VFW Post 6933 in Darien, CT. He was diagnosed with PTS, but refused treatment until the terrible day of September 11, 2001.
Stamford, CT, is a “bedroom community” for New York City. Many people from Stamford worked in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and many were lost. The horrors of that day reawakened sleeping memories in many of us, but it was real close to home for the people of Stamford and other nearby communities.
Del Vecchio, 72, is just one of the 29 stories in the book, An American Town and The Vietnam War: Stories of Service from Stamford, Connecticut. His story is only one of millions who served in the Vietnam War.
The Veterans Site wishes to honor Ralph Del Vecchio for his service to the nation as a warrior in Vietnam. We thank him for that service and we offer to him our sincerest, “Welcome Home!”
We would also like to thank Tony and Matt Pavia for their dedication and service to the Vietnam veterans of Stamford. This book honors those veterans and their hometown. As they say in their introduction, “All [these veterans] are connected to the same American town, Stamford, Connecticut, but their stories are universal, and taken together they provide a panoramic view of the Vietnam War.”