Vietnam Veterans Get Red Carpet Treatment in Barnegat

Apr 04, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Master of ceremonies Thy Cavagnaro, a Barnegat resident who fled with her family to the U.S. after the South Vietnam capital fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

You came home from the war,

no cheering could be heard

Welcome home, back where you belong.

Welcome home, you stood so firm and strong

You did your country proud

Those lyrics are from Michael Barozzie’s tribute song to Vietnam veterans, “A Belated Welcome Home,” and on March 29, it reverberated throughout the Fred Watts Gazebo Park in Barnegat over the loudspeaker, as a prelude to a Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony.

“We thought there would be about 200 Vietnam veterans in attendance, but we had more than 500,” said Thy (pronounced tee) Cavagnaro, a Barnegat resident who with her husband, James Cavagnaro, coordinated the special tribute. Aside from numerous speakers, the event featured the dedication of a Vietnam veterans memorial, a black granite monument with images of the POW-MIA, South Vietnamese and U.S. flags at the top. Underneath in large lettering, it says, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans.”

“These veterans were heroes and were not given their due thanks when they initially came back,” she addressed the crowd. “You helped keep Communists away from our neighborhoods in Vietnam, and you made sure we had safe passage to your own country when we lost ours.”

A little more than a year ago, the Cavagnaros began planning the event, focusing on March 29, which marked the first nationally recognized Vietnam Veterans Day. The date was chosen because March 29, 1973, was the last day American troops left South Vietnam.

Cavagnaro (birth name Nguyen) said she fled with her family to the U.S. after the South Vietnam capital fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

Wearing a long yellow and red dress designed like the South Vietnamese flag, Cavagnaro said she was 1½ when the family escaped Saigon via her uncle’s naval warship, on which he served as captain. From there, they went to the Philippines, then Guam, then flew to one of the three refugee camps set up at Indiantown Gap, Pa. Eventually, they were taken in by a family in East Brunswick.

Cavagnaro has something in common with one speaker, Lucy Noland, a Fox 29 Philadelphia evening and night news anchor.

“When we came to the United States, some of my family members encountered prejudice,” said. Noland. “I understand what all you veterans went through, and I’m very happy that the country can try to make it right. This memorial is a ‘thank you’ to all those who served.”   

State Sen. Christopher J. Connors said Vietnam “was a dark and painful chapter of our history.”

“Many veterans suffered open wounds, not just in body but in spirit,” he said. “Freedom sometimes comes with a heavy cost. Today, we give comfort to the veterans who sacrificed so much.”

District 3 Congressman Tom MacArthur recalled his late father as a Korean War veteran.

“He went into the Army as a boy, and he came out as a man, just like many of you,” he said. “You didn’t ask anything. You went where your country sent you. We owe a debt of gratitude to you.”

Frank Healey, Barnegat VFW commander, recalled enlisting in the Marines at age 18 in 1964.

“We were the sons and daughters of World War II veterans,” he said. “We thought it was our duty to serve our country.”

After being stationed in Europe, Healey recalled returning home on leave.

“The first two times, I came home,” he said. “But in 1968, I came back. It didn’t feel like I was home.”

He recalled how after serving in Vietnam with a rifle company, he returned to Camp Pendleton in California, finding out quickly how hostile attitudes had developed by toward servicemen and women.

“We were told that if we were going into town, not to go in uniform,” Healey recalled. “It was also suggested that we go in groups, not go alone. I was confused. I thought that this was my country.”

Looking out at the veterans, he said, “This is home. This is your welcome home” to a hearty ovation. 

The keynote speaker was Jonathan T. Gilliam, whose background includes serving as a Navy SEAL, federal air marshal, Department of Homeland Security adviser and special agent with the FBI. He serves as a network news law enforcement, national security and political analyst.

“When you join the military, you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” said Gilliam. “That oath never expires. Whether you’re 20 years old or 90 years old, you still have a duty to stand up for your country. That duty is never over.”

He said Communism is “still very much alive today.”

“On the news, you see people who are Communists and proud of it,” he said. “And you have a whole country, like China, where more than a billion people live under Communist rule.”

Gilliam recalled reading about a politician who at one time was a strong supporter of Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista movement.

“And this person got himself elected mayor of New York City,” said Gilliam, referring to Bill de Blasio. “Don’t think that Communism isn’t real. It keeps growing.”

Huy Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Community of South Florida, recalled that after South Vietnam fell, people taught him in school that it was “good to kill Americans.”

“We were told to hate America,” said Ngyuen, architect and sculptor of a Vietnam War memorial in Orlando. “I did not hate America. Over the years, millions of people left Vietnam, and I am grateful for the opportunity to come to America. You have to fight to preserve your honor and not listen to the media and its wrongful view of Vietnam War history.”

Sitting on a park bench and listening intently was Major Ron Hathaway, who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 as a combat photographer and door gunner. He was probably speaking for everyone as he reflected, “This was overdue. Long overdue.” 

— Eric Englund




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