Joe Savoie’s voice trembled as his memory drifted into the hellish year he spent stationed in An Khe between June 1969 and June 1970.
The 66-year-old Colonie veteran traded time between an ammunition dump and an explosive ordinance disposal unit with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam. Then only three years out of high school, he was forced to grow up fast; there wasn’t any other choice amid the carnage he witnessed firsthand.
“I didn’t want to win any medals. I didn’t want to win the war,” he said with a shrug. “I just wanted to come home with two arms, two legs, two eyes, 10 fingers and 10 toes.”
Savoie came home physically intact, but mentally broken. Like many others who served in combat, he wasn’t eager to draw attention to his service when he returned to a country in turmoil over the war — a nation where few were eager to welcome home vets.
“I was like everybody else,” he recalled of his return to a commercial airport in Seattle. “I sneaked in, and I sneaked out.”
Coping with the war has taken a lifetime, Savoie said, and he’s come to the realization that his memories of Vietnam will never leave him. But that in part is why receiving recognition for his service — even more than four decades later — is so important.
“It never leaves you,” he said Friday in Congress Park. “It stays with you always. You take it to the grave, unfortunately.”
Savoie was among roughly 50 Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans recognized for their service on Friday. The brief ceremony hosted in the park was aimed at thanking veterans during a 50th anniversary commemoration of the war.
Veterans gathered for photos around the official seal of the commemoration, which was posted prominently at the western terminus of Union Avenue shortly after the city was named an official partner of the federal program in April. Lew Benton, chairman of the city’s commemoration committee and a Vietnam veteran himself, said the recognition is critical now more than ever since those who served in the war are gradually thinning in numbers.
“Probably the youngest among us are 65,” he said.
The commemoration will include a slate of events in coming months and next year aimed at drawing awareness to the war, which extended from 1955 until 1975. United States involvement grew steadily from 1964 until reaching a peak in 1968, after which it declined until 1973, when most of the remaining troops were brought home.
The U.S. military suffered more than 58,000 deaths during the war, while 153,000 were wounded. Another 1,698 soldiers still remain missing in action, according to federal figures.
The war marked a period of national turmoil unparalleled during the 20th century. As combat operations became increasingly unpopular, many soldiers found themselves coming home to a nation revolting against the war — protests that sometimes directed vitriol toward anyone in a military uniform.
“We’d read the papers, and we didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Jim Hartman of Wilton, who worked in intelligence for the U.S. Air Force while stationed in Da Nang in 1970. “Some of us would get off the plane and leave our fatigues in the bathroom so we wouldn’t be recognized in the airport.”
The recognition now is long overdue, said Lou Schnieder, a member of the commemoration committee and a Korean War veteran. He said Vietnam veterans are due recognition, even if it’s coming nearly a half-century later.
“It’s about time,” he said. “We came from the forgotten war, and these guys came from the unpopular war.”