Letters from home helped Army Sgt. Dominic Cutalo get through brutal days of medevacking bloodied and broken soldiers off the battlefields of Vietnam. More than five decades later, the Huntington native was shocked to be handed a letter he had written to a 10-year-old girl who had sent him a Christmas card in 1971.
“’I know you don't know me’, she said, ‘but I know you’,” Cutalo, 70, said of his first face-to-face encounter with Kathleen Ryan, now 61, at a Vietnam War commemoration earlier this month.
Cutalo’s letter, written on stationery with a map of North and South Vietnam, has a tiny tack hole where Ryan had pinned it to a wall in her childhood bedroom.
“I just remember holding on to that letter,” said Ryan, who now lives in Setauket. “It was special to me.”
Ryan said Wednesday she is making a copy of the letter for herself and will have the original framed and given to Cutalo to be hung at the Elwood-Commack VFW Post 9263 in East Northport, where Cutalo now lives.
In 1971, Ryan's mind was mostly on the Beatles and her pen pals when her fourth-grade teacher at St. Patrick’s School in Huntington gave the class the assignment of writing Christmas cards to the troops in Vietnam. Cutalo and another soldier wrote her back.
“The best present anyone can get is a letter from back home. It means a lot to a soldier to know that people are thinking of him,” Cutalo wrote in the one-page letter Ryan received.
“I fly helicopters over here,” he wrote. “It’s okay but I would still like to be home.”
Receiving letters from the other side of the world was “surreal,” Ryan recalled.
“My heart broke because they both said they wanted to be home,” Ryan said. “I just remember thinking I hope they make it home all right.”
The correspondence didn’t continue and Ryan didn’t know Cutalo was from the same town.
“I always wondered, God, I hope they made it,” Ryan added.
'I always wondered, God, I hope they made it.'
- Kathleen Ryan speaking about the Vietnam soldiers who wrote back to her in 1971
Credit: Danielle Silverman
Cutalo grew up in Huntington the son of a World War II veteran. Knowing he was about to be drafted to Vietnam, he enlisted in the hope of getting to choose his assignment.
He asked to become a mechanic but the Army thought he’d make a better helicopter pilot. In Saigon, he was assigned to a medevac unit, flying into combat zones to bring back wounded troops.
Mail call was tough because most of the time soldiers didn’t get letters, he said. When he did, Cutalo said he knew that someone was “thinking of me and I'm thinking of them.”
When he got a Christmas card from the girl from Huntington, he said he thought, “I'm going to write back this little 10-year-old person… [because] she took the time to make a card and send it to me.”
On June 11, 1972, a group planted 49 Kwanzan cherry trees on the village green in Huntington to honor the war dead in Vietnam. As those saplings took root and bloomed, Cutalo returned to Huntington and Ryan grew up. They started careers and families, staying in northwestern Suffolk County, not knowing that they could have been passing each other on the streets or in grocery stores.
Cutalo became an auto mechanic and Ryan became a Suffolk police officer. She said she would hear stories about the war from Vietnam vets on the force.
On June 11, 2022, the Town of Huntington commemorated the 50th anniversary of the planting of the cherry trees with a veterans' event at the Marriott Hotel in Melville. When she saw an advance notice about it, Ryan said she was spurred to search the web for Cutalo’s name, which she found in the photo captions of recent Newsday articles about veterans.
She thought it’s “gotta be him” and — bringing Cutalo’s letter with her — she went to the June 11 event telling herself, “I'm going to hope that he's there.”
She told the organizers why she was looking for Cutalo and they were introduced.
“We just looked at each other,” Cutalo said. “She said, 'in 1971 I wrote you a card and you wrote me a letter back,' and she showed me the letter.”
Cutalo said meeting her after all these years is “Awesome, completely unbelievable.”