Hugh Reyes spent six months as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1966. The Uniondale resident has spent much of the rest of his life feeling that service was mostly misunderstood or forgotten.
Saturday, Reyes and hundreds of fellow Vietnam veterans converged at a chilly Vietnam Memorial Plaza in downtown Manhattan. They were there to mark what organizers said was the first public celebration of Vietnam Veterans Day in New York since Gov. David A. Paterson signed a bill in 2008 designating March 29 - the anniversary of the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saigon - for commemoration.
"This is important for the camaraderie," said Reyes, a retired New York City policeman. "We were forgotten about for so many years."
The commemoration included a reading of the names of the 1,741 New York City GIs killed during the war, plus the names of many dead Long Islanders who served.
Organizers said momentum for creating an observance specifically for Vietnam veterans has built since 1985, when veterans marched from Brooklyn to the site of the current memorial wall to mark the 10th anniversary of the war's end.
Some 3 million Americans served in Southeast Asia during the 16-year war, America's longest conflict. More than 58,000 U.S. troops were killed and 304,000 were wounded before the last troops withdrew.
Once they returned from Vietnam, many GIs felt rejected by an American populace tired of war and frustrated by defeat. And, like veterans of today's wars, many also battled internal demons brought on by the savagery of war they had witnessed.
Reyes said he slept in his shoes for more than a year after returning from Vietnam, unable to shake the fear he would need to flee attack. He avoided family picnics because parks reminded him of the battlefields.
One of the most difficult things for him to cope with is knowing he was involved in the deaths of children caught between insurgents and U.S. troops.
"We would hear women and children screaming in a village we were taking, and by the time we were finished with the village, everything would be quiet," said Reyes, who said it was more than 40 years before he sought psychological help, in part because he feared he would lose his police officer's job if his superiors knew of his treatment. "I stopped trying to talk to people about it years ago."
John Rezin, 63, a former Navy sailor living in West Babylon, came to the ceremony in part to honor a childhood friend who was killed during the war. He stood near the memorial's smoky green glass wall, at the edge of a crowd of graying men who listened as bagpipes played a mournful tune.
"These guys on the wall are true heroes," he said. "They'll never be forgotten."