Anthony J. Quitoni tried his best to forget about the Vietnam War after he returned home from Southeast Asia.
But on Saturday, the former artillery crew member — who fought in Vietnam’s central highlands during some of the bloodiest months of the conflict — will remember fellow soldiers who never made it home.
“You say a little prayer for them, and you say ‘thank you’,” Quitoni said Thursday.
At ceremonies at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale and in lower Manhattan, those who served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War will be honored.
The events are expected to draw hundreds of veterans and relatives of military personnel who perished during America’s nearly two decades of military presence in Vietnam.
Quitoni, 73, of Mt. Sinai, plans to be at the 80-year-old burial ground in Farmingdale on Saturday to pay his respects.
He was drafted almost immediately after graduating from Adelphi University in 1966, and served as an Army specialist aboard a motorized howitzer near the town of An Khe.
It was a gritty, deadly business that he still can’t talk about. He came home to a nation bitterly divided between proponents of America’s war policy and anti-war activists, many of whom blamed soldiers personally for their participation.
Quitoni said he put his Army uniform in a closet and tried to tuck memories of the war in with it. He absorbed himself in the day-to-day responsibilities of raising three sons, while coaching gymnastics, football, wrestling and lacrosse and serving as a teacher and administrator in the Middle Country school district.
He said he kept thoughts of the war mostly at bay for nearly two decades, until he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C., in the 1980s.
Quitoni, who rides an Indian Roadmaster motorcycle with the Vietnam Riders club, said the visit caused him to weep like a child. It was only then, he said, as he read the names of the more than 58,000 Vietnam War dead that are engraved on the monument’s polished stone surface, that the enormity of his sense of loss struck him.
Saturday’s 10 a.m. ceremony in Farmingdale will include a reading of the names of area war dead. Vietnam-era veterans will receive commemorative medals honoring their service.
A similar ceremony will begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Elizabeth Seaton Shrine, at 7 State Street in Manhattan, where the names of the 1,741 New Yorkers who died during the war will be read aloud by Vietnam veterans, family members and local dignitaries.
Morris Miller, 68, a Massapequa resident who served as an artillery spotter in Vietnam between May 1968 and February 1969, also hopes to attend the Farmingdale commemoration.
“The war was controversial, but we did what we could to keep our brother and sister soldiers alive, and to bring them home safe,” the former Army sergeant said. “Vietnam taught America a lesson that was learned at our expense: That you honor soldiers when they come home.”
Quitoni remains scarred by the rejection he felt after the war, but he’s heartened that veterans like himself are finally being honored.
“Saturday will be sad,” he said Thursday. “Think of all the young guys who never came back.”