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Vietnam vets honored in Bethpage for wartime service

Vietnam Veteran John Schrank, of Dix Hills, embraces

Vietnam Veteran John Schrank, of Dix Hills, embraces his wife Linda, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016, during an event in Old Bethpage to commemorate the military veterans who served during the conflict. Credit: Steve Pfost

At a gathering in Old Bethpage to commemorate Vietnam veterans for their wartime service, John F. Schrank, of Dix Hills, remembered the kid who grew up around the corner from him in Floral Park.

His name was Joseph Price Lipton. But nobody who is 18 years old gets called Joseph Price Lipton except during high school graduation. So Schrank called him “Joey.”

Joey joined the Marines and went off to Vietnam with a sentry dog unit two years before Schrank. Schrank went Air Force instead, and never knew what happened to Joey until he got back from ‘Nam in 1969. Word on the street was that Joey died in May 1967 when the helicopter he was in crashed into the Gulf of Tonkin. He’d been in Vietnam just two weeks, and was only on the helicopter because he was being taken to the hospital for a throat infection.

“You try not to forget them, because if you remember them, they live on in you,” Schrank said of Joey and a few other guys from his neighborhood whose life narrative stopped suddenly when they were still in their teens.

The commemorative gathering at the Museum of American Armor, which was organized by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, drew about 800 Vietnam veterans plus about 1,000 others, mostly family and friends.

Each veteran was offered a commemorative Vietnam service pin, plus a written proclamation honoring their service.

Almost all of the veterans, men mostly in their late 60s to mid 70s, held the memory of a fellow GI who had gone off about the same time they did, but never came home.

“I don’t need a plaque to show what I did,” said Carlos Barreto, 72, of Lindenhurst, who was drafted out of Bedford Stuyvesant in 1962, served in the 25th Infantry Division, and was shot through the right hand while carrying a radio during a patrol. “But I’m glad I came, because I’m among my own. Anyone who is here has been through what I have.”

Many Vietnam veterans have long felt their Vietnam War sacrifice went unappreciated by a nation exhausted by its third major war in two decades.

The controversial conflict cost America today’s equivalent of $1 trillion in war spending and veterans care, derailed LBJ’s War on Poverty, and exposed deep divisions in the nation’s social fabric. Some 3.4 million American GIs served in Southeast Asia during the war. Tens of thousands returned with debilitating physical and psychological wounds that continue to mark their lives today. More than 58,000 GI’s were killed.

But rather than be rimmed with melancholy, Sunday’s commemoration had an upbeat air. Many of the veterans in attendance said it felt good to be among so many others who carried similar memories of valor and loss as they did.

“When we came home from Vietnam, we didn’t talk about it to anyone — nobody understood,” said Schrank, 68, who left his fiancee to go to war when he was still in his teens, and lied to her about the frequent rocket attacks on his base near Phan Rang to spare her of worry.

Schrank came home after the war and married Linda, the girl he had met at a church dance when she was 15, who had waited for him to come home from the war, and who came with him to the commemoration Sunday. He got a job in his father’s butcher shop, and the two of them raised a son and a daughter.

“It was sad,” he said of the loss that flowed past his early life like the brown waters of Vietnam’s Mekong River. “But when you came home, you had to move on. People didn’t care.”

But if America mostly didn’t care then, the people who came to the commemoration sought to persuade the veterans in attendance that their sacrifices are now remembered.

Army Lt. Col. Matthew Balint, who commands an Army recruiting battalion responsible for Long Island, praised Vietnam’s veterans during a brief address Sunday as individuals who did not flinch when they were called to a confusing and unpopular war.

“This generation molded my generation,” said Balint, the Ohio son of a Vietnam veteran, and himself a veteran of combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “The fact that I have an opportunity to stand in front of you and say thank you is personally rewarding and humbling.”

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