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Long time coming: Vietnam vets get their due, though some say too late

Peter Hanson, 76, with his wife Sherry, shows

Peter Hanson, 76, with his wife Sherry, shows off a medal he recieved from the Long Island Air Force Association at ceremony at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. Hanson was among 26 Vietnam veterans who were presented medals Saturday. Credit: Howard Simmons

Men who put their lives on hold — and at risk — to serve in the Vietnam War were given special recognition Saturday during a ceremony that a few of them described as immaterial. 

The Long Island Air Force Association gave a medal — a blue medallion suspended from a red, green and yellow ribbon — to 26 Vietnam veterans at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. A medal is nice, some of the veterans said, but the accolades should have come the moment servicemen returned and not decades later when many veterans have already died. 

"I'm not here just for myself, but for my brothers who are not with us now," Bohemia resident Denis Demers said, referring to two servicemen who were born in Baldwin. 

Demers, an Army specialist fifth class, received a medal and said the item was his way of "passing on the respect" to his fallen brethren. 

In 2015, the Pentagon authorized the Air Force association to design and present the medals as part of the Defense Department's Vietnam 50th Anniversary Commemoration Program, said association president Fred DiFabio. The association has distributed about 800 medals since 2015, DiFabio said. The Pentagon initiative was designed to encourage nongovernmental organizations nationwide to salute local Vietnam veterans, in part to make up for the relative lack of recognition afforded Vietnam veterans in the decades immediately after the war’s end.

When Vietnam veterans came home, there were "no victory parades or kisses in Times Square," said Fred Sganga, the veterans home executive director. Even though "our Vietnam generation is gray now," Saturday's event can "help right the wrongs of the past," he said. 

Demers said he vividly remembers his return from Vietnam. A plane flew him and others from Asia to Fort Lewis in Washington state. They arrived at night with no celebration "and they [Army officials] had us all processed in about 12 hours." After that, Demers said he was given another plane ticket from Washington back to New York.

Former Airman 1st Class Robert Nieves, a Stony Brook resident,  called receiving the medal "too little too late," adding that the money spent creating it should have been re-directed to help veterans with physical disabilities or mental illnesses . 

During the ceremony, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) told veterans that today's soldiers know they have big shoes to fill when compared to the Vietnam era. Jesse Fritz, commander for the 106th Rescue Wing Air National Guard, echoed Zeldin, saying current airmen always think of the heroism Vietnam veterans displayed overseas.

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