50 years af­ter Viet­nam

Stam­ford man re­calls a duty of honor too wor­thy for pay

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Front Page - By An­gela Carella

STAM­FORD — When the Army sum­moned Ralph Del Vec­chio to Viet­nam, his fa­ther and un­cle drove him to the train sta­tion.

With their good­byes, they de­liv­ered a de­cree.

“Don’t dis­grace your name.”

Del Vec­chio, just 18, un­der­stood the weight of it — his fa­ther and un­cle had fought in World War II.

The words went with him to Camp Hol­loway, a he­li­copter base near Pleiku, where he was called to stand guard duty, lay mines, join search-and-de­stroy mis­sions, trans­port sup­plies, and hunt the Viet Cong in the jun­gles of the Cen­tral High­lands.

Af­ter 11 months of sleep­ing in the rain; sleep­ing sit­ting up, back-to-back with a fel­low guard; drink­ing any­thing but the wa­ter, in­fected with dysen­tery, Del Vec­chio — a month left in his tour — was watch­ing a movie one night with other sol­diers in a tent at Camp Hol­loway.

A sergeant walked in, turned off the pro­jec­tor, and called out two names. The edict Del Vec­chio re­ceived from his el­ders was about to be tested.

Un­told his­to­ries

Now 72, Del Vec­chio tells the story in a book, “An Amer­i­can Town and the Viet­nam War,” in which fa­ther-and-son au­thors Tony and Matt Pavia re­count the ex­pe­ri­ences of Stam­ford res­i­dents who served in the con­tro­ver­sial con­flict that played it­self out on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion half a cen­tury ago.

Tony Pavia, a re­tired his­tory teacher and

Stam­ford High prin­ci­pal, and Matt Pavia, an English teacher at Darien High, launched the book this month. It is the only city his­tory of its kind.

Lit­tle is known na­tion­wide about Viet­nam sol­diers, who cy­cled into the war in one-year tours. Towns lost track of who served and where, and whether they died or re­turned.

For most of his life, Del Vec­chio thought that’s the way it should be.

The sto­ries are hard to tell.

“The sergeant who called me out of the movie that night was from the South. He didn’t like North­ern­ers, es­pe­cially Ital­ian North­ern­ers,” Del Vec­chio said. “He mis­pro­nounced my name on pur­pose. He said, ‘Da Vec­chio, re­port to GR.’”

It stands for Graves Reg­is­tra­tion — pro­cess­ing the bod­ies of fallen com­rades.

Dreaded duty

There were sol­diers who were trained to do it, but that night in July 1967, they were in short sup­ply. The war in the Cen­tral High­lands “was hot,” Del Vec­chio said, and trucks full of bod­ies were rolling in.

He and the other sol­dier were as­signed the spe­cial duty and di­rected to four large tents.

“They handed us masks soaked in Aqua Velva” af­ter-shave lo­tion to cloak the smell, Del Vec­chio said. “The other guy walked out. I thought, ‘Where did he go? He has an order.’ ”

In his head he heard: “Don’t dis­grace your name.” He stayed.

“I had picked up the dead be­fore, in the field,” Del Vec­chio said. “But this was dif­fer­ent.”

He pressed his hand on this chest pocket, where he kept a Padre Pio prayer card given to him by his mother, and be­gan un­load­ing bod­ies. Some were rigid, oth­ers badly bloated. He had to work to fit them into the bags. Some bod­ies were in pieces, and he matched the parts as best he could.

“It took all night. There were al­most 80 bod­ies. I bagged them and loaded them back on the truck,” he said. “I prayed the whole time. ‘These poor souls. Please, Lord, stop me from go­ing in­sane.’ Then it was morn­ing and I said, ‘My job is done.’ ”

Death flight

But the sergeant ap­peared. He told Del Vec­chio he had to drive the bod­ies to Plaiku. There, Del Vec­chio loaded them onto a C-130 cargo plane, and ap­proached the cock­pit to ride with the pi­lot to the main air­port in Saigon.

“The pi­lot said, ‘You’re not au­tho­rized to sit here. You sit with them,’” and mo­tioned to the bod­ies.

But the cargo area was filled, so Del Vec­chio had to sit on the body bags. The stench was over­pow­er­ing, mag­gots ev­ery­where. The flight took an hour and a half.

“We landed near this big build­ing that looks like a pro­cess­ing plant, with all these mor­ti­cians from the U.S. I was over­whelmed,” Del Vec­chio said. “They said, ‘Un­load the bod­ies and take all their P.E.’ ”

Per­sonal ef­fects. He had to un­zip each body bag and look for them — a two-day job.

“I took their let­ters, their rings, their money — what­ever they had, and put it in lit­tle green bags,” Del Vec­chio said. “I knew they could not have open cas­kets when they got home, and I would be one of the last to see them. I thought, ‘I have to care for them.’ ”

Many died eyes open, ex­pres­sions on their faces, a bul­let fired close-range into the head. It likely meant the Viet Cong found them wounded and as­sas­si­nated them, Del Vec­chio said.

“That is the hard­est part of all of it,” he said. “It was a lot of young guys who had been in-coun­try only a few days.”

Soon af­ter re­turn­ing from Graves Reg­is­tra­tion duty, Del Vec­chio was told to pack his things. He was go­ing home. He thought, “But I am home,” he said.

“I was with my brothers. Where else was home?” he said. “But the next day, I was in the United States, still in my jun­gle fa­tigues.”

War de­mon­stra­tors threw eggs at him and other sol­diers at an air­port in Tacoma, Wash. In the New York air­port, he got such looks that he tried to hide. Back in Stam­ford, where he was a mem­ber of a ma­sons’ union, no one would give him a job.

Blood money

A few months af­ter Del Vec­chio re­turned, a let­ter ar­rived from the Army. It was a check for $82 for Graves Reg­is­tra­tion duty.

Fifty years later, Del Vec­chio still hasn’t cashed it.

“I saw it and I thought, ‘I don’t want this money. It isn’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.’ ”

But he saw their faces in his mind all the time. Twenty years af­ter re­turn­ing from Viet­nam, Del Vec­chio joined VFW Post 6933 in Darien, where he found new brothers and saw that there was help for his night­mares. He was di­ag­nosed with Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der, but re­sisted reg­u­lar treat­ment un­til Sept. 11, 2001, when Amer­ica was at­tacked by ter­ror­ists.

“It was some­thing about the deaths of all the in­no­cent peo­ple,” Del Vec­chio said.

Now he man­ages his PTSD with help from a Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion doc­tor, and meets each week with his VFW brothers. He wor­ries about vet­er­ans, whose sui­cide rate is sig­nif­i­cantly higher than that of civil­ians.

“We try to stuff ev­ery­thing down,” Del Vec­chio said. “But it comes back to you.”

Tyler Size­more / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Viet­nam vet­eran Ralph Del Vec­chio holds an un­cashed $82 check for his wartime grave reg­is­tra­tion duty in­side his home in Stam­ford on Wed­nes­day. With only days left in his tour, Del Vec­chio was as­signed to bag the bod­ies of his fallen com­rades, load them on a truck and then a cargo plane to a larger air­port where they were trans­ported home. For the “ex­tra duty” the Army gave him a check for $82, which he says he will never cash.

Viet­nam vet­eran Ralph Del Vec­chio shows of photo of him­self dur­ing the Viet­nam war at his home in Stam­ford.

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