Not their fathers' war; Proclamation offers praise late in the game.
WORCESTER - Four or five dozen people stood under the hot sun yesterday morning at the Massachusetts Vietnam Veterans Memorial to watch survivors of an unpopular war, their hair and beards now gray, lay a wreath to comrades who died young in battle long ago.
Some spectators jumped or winced at the crack of rifle shots when the color guard fired a salute that echoed through Green Hill Park. The small audience applauded politely after each local politician spoke briefly, often in platitudes, about bravery and sacrifice.
One of the speakers urged the spectators to bring their families and neighbors to the ceremony next year on Memorial Day.
For Vietnam War veterans like Dan Ruggieri of West Boylston, it was a great turnout for the annual wreath laying ceremony at the memorial - maybe the biggest crowd he's seen yet, he said.
Mr. Ruggieri, 65, was just two weeks out of high school when he shipped out in 1967 for Vietnam, where he served in the U.S. Navy aboard a destroyer. He went off to war as a teenager, expecting to return a respected veteran like his father, who had fought in World War II.
But it wasn't his father's war. And he didn't get his father's reception when he got back.
When his father got home and boarded a train, the conductor put his hand over the coin slot, unwilling to take the money of a returning G.I., Mr. Ruggieri said.
"With us, we'd be hitchhiking home, and they'd drive by and throw bottles at us," he said.
Such stories have become part of the lore of the war - returning veterans jeered
as the war grew more and more divisive and unpopular and politicians took heed of the turn in public sentiment. But, in time, the war passed from a raw wound upon the consciousness of the country to a brief, unpleasant chapter in American history.
In recent years, Mr. Ruggieri has found himself in the unfamiliar position of being thanked for his service by strangers, a sign largely of resurgent support for the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mr. Ruggieri has come to believe the war was a mistake, not worth the loss of lives, but he remains proud of his service in Vietnam.
The White House issued a presidential proclamation last week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, saluting its veterans in glowing terms.
"We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women who left their families to serve bravely, a world away from everything they knew and everyone they loved. From Ia Drang to Khe Sanh, from Hue to Saigon and countless villages in between, they pushed through jungles and rice paddies, heat and monsoon, fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans," the proclamation reads in part.
The recognition was a long time in coming, and of little comfort for veterans such as Ralph Simkonis of Worcester.
"They didn't do anything for us back then," Mr. Simkonis recalled. "There's still a lot of Vietnam veterans that have hard feelings."
He was one of the four veterans asked to lay the wreath yesterday, representing the U.S. Air Force. Mr. Simkonis doesn't want the men and women who died during the war to be forgotten, but he also seemed a bit pained when asked to reflect on how the war of his youth is judged from the perspective of an older, wiser man.
"You have to move on," he said, "but it still sits there in the back of your mind."
Douglas Greiner of Worcester turned 19 in Vietnam, during the first of his two tours at an Air Force base at Nha Trang.
Yesterday morning, the 63-year-old veteran walked to the ceremony supported by a cane. He has cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a condition he suspects may have been caused by exposure in Vietnam to the infamous chemical defoliant Agent Orange.
"When I first got back, nobody would even look at us or talk about what we were there doing. That was hard," Mr. Greiner said.
He lost a boyhood schoolmate from Worcester, Guy Jerry Protano Jr., in the war.
Mr. Protano was near the end of his combat tour in Vietnam when the U.S. Army helicopter he was flying back to base in got shot down by enemy fire, Mr. Greiner said.
Every year, Mr. Greiner goes to the memorial in the park to say a prayer and run his fingers over Mr. Protano's name etched into the stone pillars at the far end of the monument along with so many others.
Like Mr. Ruggieri, Mr. Greiner is upbeat, friendly and not bitter about the war or the country's reaction to it. He wishes more people took the time to learn about Vietnam, to remember the men and women killed there, but he doesn't dwell on it or hold any kind of a grudge all these years later.
But there is a kind of disappointment both men still feel to this day, five decades later. It might have been easier to try to put the war behind them years ago, but, for good or ill, it remains one of the most vivid, formative times in their lives as they approach old age.
"I'm proud of it. I can honestly say that," Mr. Greiner said. "But you saw how many people were here today. That was a big crowd for us."
As he was speaking, his mobile phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket. Mr. Greiner told the caller that he'd have to call him right back.
It was his older brother calling from the Midwest, as he does every Memorial Day and every Veterans Day.
"He always says, `Thank you for your service.'"
CUTLINE: (1) The wreath laying ceremony at Green Hill Park brought out more people than last year to honor Vietnam veterans. Lee F. Bartlett Jr., 93, at left, a veteran of World War II, salutes. (2) A participant folds his hands during a solemn moment in the ceremony. (3) The procession walks near the pond to the monuments.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/CHRISTINE PETERSON