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When Uncle Sam called my brother to fight in Vietnam

Joseph Ganzi of Flushing, Queens, in the U.S.

Joseph Ganzi of Flushing, Queens, in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the 1960s. He is brother of Opinions writer Paula Ganzi Licata of Bellmore. Credit: Paula Ganzi Licata

I remember the goodbye hug I gave my brother, squeezing his neck so hard it probably hurt, despite my puny arms.

It was 1967 — 50 years ago this fall. I’d just turned 8. My brother, Joey, 21, had graduated from St. John’s University in the spring and was immediately drafted to serve in Vietnam. The war was raging on black-and-white television sets in living rooms around the country, across headlines and in hushed tones used for cancer. (“Her son’s there.”)

My memories, those of the quiet kid observing a house full of adults in Flushing, Queens, are supplemented by decades of family stories.

During those agonizing days between Joey’s draft letter in the summer and when he left for basic training, the mood at home was similar to that in a doctor’s office after malignant test results. What do you say?

People weighed in on Joey’s future. My Uncle Danny called from Florida — at long-distance rates — to persuade my brother to become an officer. My mother silently hoped he wouldn’t, knowing that officers were targets for capture and torture. Discussions never turned to draft dodging. It wasn’t that we were a gung-ho military family; my father wasn’t able to serve in World War II because of his poor eyesight. It was more about doing what was right.

During Joey’s tour of duty in Vietnam from July 1968 to July 1969, the U.S. mail was our lifeline. Spotting the red, white and blue edges of an air mail envelope in the mailbox meant he was safe. My mother would leave his letter on the dining room table for Dad, my sisters, Karen and Joan, and me to read. And reread. Although Joey had sloppy handwriting, the letters looked particularly rushed. Or was it my imagination reading between the lines, triggered by nightly news images of soldiers running through jungles and jumping out of helicopters?

On my parents’ bedroom wall, my mother had taped a giant map of Southeast Asia. I can still see the pastel colors of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. She would mark Joey’s location on the map in pencil. Then the locations would haunt us on the evening news. Names of foreign cities became frighteningly familiar, newscasters filling in between the lines of Joey’s letters.

When his tour was due to end, Joey could only approximate his return home. We didn’t know dates, flights or when he’d finally be out of danger.

Early one morning in July 1969, my mother and I, the only ones awake, heard a key in the door. She jumped out of her seat: “I’m coming, Joseph!”

I’ve only seen my mother cry twice in her 100 years: the day my father’s surgeon said, “We saved his eye” (after removing a massive tumor in his cheekbone), and that morning with Joey standing in our living room, thousands of miles away from the war in Southeast Asia. Smiling from ear to ear, he looked skinny in his Army green dress uniform, his cap sitting atop his close-cropped hair. When my mother eventually stopped hugging him, Joey bent down to hug me.

My brother continued serving others for decades as a much-adored teacher in a Queens public elementary school, and now as babysitter PopPop for his grandchildren. There’s no retirement for beloved heroes.

Recently, I wondered whether Joey — a veteran who had spent a year in Vietnam and made a wonderful life for himself and his family in Seaford — watched “The Vietnam War” documentary series on PBS. To avoid putting him on the spot, I texted my question. His response: “Did not watch it.” Did he plan to? No.

Reader Paula Ganzi Licata lives in Bellmore.