By Maddy Vitale
Vietnam veterans and their families and dignitaries gathered for a solemn ceremony at Sea Isle City’s Veterans Park to remember the men and women who served in the war and also those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The city joined other communities throughout the nation to recognize the military men and women during National Vietnam Veterans Day on Friday.
Speakers focused on a message that we cannot change the past, but we can continue to try to right a wrong.
Congressman Jeff Van Drew spoke of how the Vietnam veterans were mistreated when they returned home from service. He said they were dishonored.
“What we must do when something is wrong is make it better, right and good,” Van Drew shouted into the microphone. “We must make sure that these men and women know how much we praise them for what they did. We have to let them know they are in our hearts and in our prayers.”
A crowd of about 60 people, including a group of Vietnam veterans, joined together to remember and honor each other and those who died in Vietnam.
Guest speaker Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, an Air Force veteran, said, “Today is a chance to thank all of those who served and sacrificed and say, ‘Welcome home.’”
He then spoke about the indignities the military men and women faced after they returned home from Vietnam.
“The welcoming they got when they got back from conflict was a wound,” Thornton stressed. “The nation wounded them when they came back. Today, we are saying, ‘You are not forgotten.’ That is why we are here. I want to thank Vietnam veterans. I am proud when I stand beside them.”
For some people, including Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, the emotions were raw despite a half a century since the war.
Hayes’ brother, Stanley, came home from war. But, like so many others who served in Vietnam, the cruel treatment he suffered when he returned left an indelible mark.
“The day my brother Stanley came home, a car went by and I thought they were waving. They were waving obscenities. He said, ‘Please don’t make a fuss.’ He was dark and tortured. Later on in life, he got his life back together.”
Stanley died when he was in his 40s. Hayes said the family believes it was a result of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was an herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam that has been linked to cancers and other diseases.
“There is a change today,” Hayes said. “Thank God there is. We love our Vietnam vets.”
V.F.W. Post 1963 Commander Charles “Chick” Haines, a Vietnam veteran, gave an emotional tribute to fellow Vietnam vets.
“We were sent to the other side of the world for a people who never really understood what freedom was,” Haines said as his voice cracked with emotion.
He spoke of how veterans came home and couldn’t understand why they didn’t fit in. Some drank, some did drugs, some committed suicide. Others just suffered with scars after returning from hell, he explained.
Later in the ceremony, Haines was in charge of the placing of the wreath.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio, the master of ceremonies, told the crowd how some people only know about Vietnam through books or movies.
“For many younger citizens of this nation, Vietnam was learned about in school, or a Hollywood movie,” he pointed out. “Vietnam was more than a lesson in a history book or some blockbuster movie.”
Desiderio outlined in his address the horrors of war the men and women faced in Vietnam.
The mayor spoke of how the news media brought the war into American homes by way of television, and how the reality of war became vivid for the people back home.
When the vets came back home, they had to face medical problems caused by Agent Orange and other battle-related injuries and trauma, Desiderio said.
They also had to face a nation that was less than welcoming when they returned home, he added.
Desiderio said his solemn hope is that the Vietnam veterans know now how much they are loved and appreciated for their sacrifices.
The mayor also said in his keynote remarks that a summer resident made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam when he died in 1968.
In Sea Isle, a portion of 46th Street is named in honor of Michael Crescenz, a summer resident who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Vietnam war.
Crescenz, an Army corporal, was killed in 1968 while charging up a hill to attack an enemy stronghold. He was credited with knocking out three enemy machine gun bunkers during a fierce battle, saving the lives of many American soldiers.
A miniature statue of Crescenz is on display in the lobby of Sea Isle’s City Hall. Sea Isle played a major role in raising money for a lifelike bronze statue of Crescenz at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, Crescenz’s hometown.
Others in attendance at Friday’s ceremony included state Assemblyman R. Bruce Land, who served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, Lower Township Mayor Erik Simonsen and Assemblyman Matthew Milam.
Cape May County Sheriff Bob Nolan, Cape May County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti, Sea Isle Councilmen J.B. Feeley and William Kehner and AARP 710 President and Navy veteran Frank Roach also attended the ceremony.
Former President Barack Obama declared March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day in 2012. Then last year, President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 into law, making the date a commemoration of Vietnam veterans every year.