MANVILLE - If Joe Ferrara and some of his fellow Vietnam veterans had their way, there'd be more ceremonies like Saturdays at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.
The Bridgewater resident who served with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division during the height of the war in 1968 and 69 said too often, the scars of the conflict have kept its warriors from speaking up. But, decades after the war that divided American sentiment at home and prompted a hostile reaction to many returning GIs, Ferrara said veterans want to preserve the memory of their fallen comrades.
""We owe it to them to let people know what they suffered and died for,'' he said shortly after a simulated funeral ceremony similar to one held at the hall every year.
A mock grave was set up near the stage, complete with flowers, a wreath and the customary display of a pair of soldier's boots, a rifle and a combat helmet, along with a small American flag. Taps was played by a bugler, and several speakers delivered brief remarks, recalling the trying experience for Americans sent to fight in an unpopular war. Those experiences included angry crowds who sometimes jeered or hurled verbal attacks at soldiers getting back to U.S. soil.
""The way we were treated when we came home, there was no respect,'' said Ken Kalinowksi, a 67-year-old Manville resident and Navy veteran who treated wounded soldiers in 1962 and '63.
Mayor Lillian Zuza, a high school student when 18-, 19- and 20-year-old American men were fighting and dying half a world away, called it a really difficult war. ""I hope nothing like that in this country ever happens again,'' Zuza said.
Rep. Leonard Lance, R-7th Dist., said the war took a deep toll on America's young men at that time. ""Sixty-one percent of those (soldiers) killed were 21 or younger,'' Lance commented.
Lance then told a story of how he selected one of the three flags customary for all members of Congress to display at the doors to their offices in Washington, D.C. The first, he noted, was the American flag, the second is the flag of New Jersey, and the third is the POW/MIA flag. ""You have my pledge that will be the third flag I post at my door as long as I'm in the House of Representatives,'' Lance told the audience.
The day served as a living lesson for some.
Members of Boy Scout Troop 193 in Manville were there as were Cub Scouts. ""They see there's a congressman, it makes an impression on the kids,'' said Scoutmaster Jim Kelly.
Renny Dilks, a jet-engine mechanic with the Marines whose Vietnam tour lasted from November 1966 through January 1968, was gratified by the ceremony. Americans now contribute regularly to gift campaigns for soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, but Dilks noted few if any programs like that existed in the Vietnam era. ""It was very hard,'' said the past commander of VFW Post 2290. Now, Dilks, Ferrara, Kalinowski and their fellow Vietnam veterans vow to remember their colleagues from that war and others.
""We're remembering all veterans, especially those still missing,'' Dilks said. ""We will not forget.'