After a medal was draped around Arturo Edwards’ neck, about 50 of his friends and family crowded close to him to pose for a photo.
The crowd cheered while a brass band continued to play “God Bless America” in the packed lobby of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. For Edwards, it was the homecoming he said he didn’t get more than 50 years ago when he returned from serving in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“Finally after 50 years, I’m getting now what we didn’t get then coming home,” said Edwards, 72, of Farmingdale. “And I thank the lord for that.”
Edwards was one of 32 local Vietnam veterans honored Saturday in the 28th medal ceremony organized by the Long Island Air Force Association.
Fred Di Fabio, the organization’s president, said the group started awarding the medals to recognize veterans who went largely “unappreciated,” compared to the veterans of World War II or the Korean War, when they returned home. So far they’ve given more than 800 medals and would like to honor more veterans, Di Fabio said.
At the event, Lt. Col. Keith Sumwalt of the Westhampton-based 106th Rescue Wing based in Westhampton Beach and state Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), who served in the New York Army National Guard, addressed the audience.
“The men we honor today are heroes in every sense of the word,” Brooks said. “They did the duty that they were called upon to do, but sadly upon their return they were not welcomed home the way they should have been. They weren’t given the respect they should have been.”
The sentiment — that this was a ceremony long past due — was shared by many of the veterans and their families.
As Susan Petschauer of Hauppauge stood next to her father, Fredrich Petschauer, she began to cry. During the war Petschauer, 72, of Melville, was shot in the leg and the back and was awarded three Purple Hearts. But this was the first time the Marine was honored in a ceremony, his daughter said.
“This means a lot to him,” Susan Petschauer said. “He’s so happy to be here.”
For years, Peter Conway of Franklin Square shied away from discussing his military service as an air evac with the Air Force. But this ceremony and his membership in the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter has helped him learn how to be proud.
“I’ve felt so much love today with my wife here and my fellow members of the Vietnam Veterans of America,” Conway said. “I feel that I was finally welcomed back.”