As an Army sergeant in Vietnam, Carl Tuzzolino's task was to tally the bodies of fallen soldiers and ship them home.
Years later, he'd come to view that grim duty as some of the best days of his life. He'd proudly served his country and forged deep bonds with others in uniform.
But in 1968, he returned to a polarized nation, with anti-war protests spreading from coast to coast.See alsoFreebies for veterans on LI
"It was like they never fought a war. There was no recognition, no parade, no ceremonies -- nothing," said Tuzzolino's wife, Ana, of Dix Hills.
Her 72-year-old husband died Feb. 23 from complications related to a stroke, but Saturday he and 19 other Vietnam veterans from Long Island were belatedly recognized for their service.
The commemorative medals were presented, 40 years after the fall of Saigon, at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.
"I couldn't stop crying; it was just so emotional," Tuzzolino said after she was presented the posthumous medal. "He just absolutely loved serving his country."
The Long Island Air Force Association, a nonprofit that supports military families, organized the event in partnership with a federal Vietnam War Commemoration program. The association plans to continue honoring Vietnam veterans in coming years, holding quarterly ceremonies.
"It's very important that the younger generation of Americans not forget the sacrifice of their previous generations," said association treasurer William Stratemeier, a retired Air National Guard colonel.
U.S. involvement in the war escalated in the mid-1960s and lasted about a decade. The U.S. death toll was more than 58,000.
"They didn't come into an airport where American flags and proud strangers were waiting to greet them with hugs, to say 'Thank you for your service and sacrifice,' " said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an Army Reserves major who attended the event.
One of those honored, veterans home resident Ronald Matty, 67, can't forget what some people called him when he returned home in 1970: "baby killer."
Matty, a former Army sergeant and helicopter mechanic who flew rescue missions, wore his old green uniform Saturday -- the one he couldn't wear in public, even in his hometown.
The uniform hung loosely over his shriveled body, weakened by Parkinson's disease and a heart condition.
Laboring to speak, Matty marveled at the medal hanging around his neck.
"Absolutely unbelievable to get that medal after 50 years," he said.