SCHENECTADY - When Gene Loparco, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, first began thinking about a veteran's memorial for the Order of the Schenectady chapter of the Sons of Italy he knew he wanted it to be big enough to see from the street, and big enough to encompass every U.S. veteran.
Saturday he got his wish when the Sons of Italy of unveiled its veterans memorial, a plaque stating "In Honor of all Veterans who served" written over "Sons of Italy Lodge #321." The plaque is carved into a large white boulder placed adjacent to the lodge's building at 2984 Hamburg St.
Loparco said he's a member of 10 different veterans organizations, and he was gratified to see about 65 people attend the unveiling ceremony, many of them Vietnam War veterans, veterans from the Korean War, a few World War II veterans and several veterans from the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Even though we have our logo there, members of Lodge #321, we're honoring everybody who served," Loparco said.
Bob Brandt Sr., 93, of Rotterdam, attended the ceremony. He served in a USS LST-740 landing ship in the Pacific Ocean theater of World War II. He said he can still remember when he saw a picture of Gen. Douglas Macarthur's return to the Philippines on the front page of the Schenectady Gazette in 1944. He said he was a part of that operation, and years later he would work for the Gazette in it's printing operation.
"We were on the beaches," he said.
Ed Nagay attended the ceremony. Nagay, who lives in Rotterdam, served in the U.S. Marine Corps. from 1966-67, and was wounded by shrapnel from a grenade and received the Purple Heart. He said the guy next to him was luckier, he got hit in the face with the shrapnel.
"It was good because it just lodged against his tooth, and he got to go home, head wound," he said. "I got shrapnel all through the side of me. I had a flak jacket on, fortunately. The regular Purple Heart could be for minor wounds, and you didn't get to go home until you had three, and some guys turned down going home."
Fred Whelan, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1961-66, had a more lighthearted story of his service. He said he was once bitten in the face by a penguin while trying to take a picture with it while serving in Antarctica. He said he used to tell that stories at his children's school.
"At lot of guys would have stories saying they were in charge of this or that, so I'd give them the old penguin story. The kids loved it," he said.
Christina Pizzino-Catalano, a music teacher in Niskayuna, sang both the Star Spangled Banner and the National Anthem of Italy at the ceremony. She said she was honored to be asked to sing. She said the National Anthem of Italy has a military "brass band" feel to it, while the American National Anthem is best understood through its lyrics.
"The American anthem is difficult. It's beautiful, but it originally came from the British, and it has that fight feeling. It's based on battle," she said.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, attended the memorial. He said he was filled with pride both from his heritage of being a first generation person born from Italian immigrants, as well as his own history of serving eight years in the U.S. Army Reserves. He said one of the biggest challenges today's veterans groups face is reaching out to recruit the younger generation of veterans. But he said he thinks that process is improving, in part due to more public events that incorporate veterans like the recent "Bring a Veteran to School Day" at the Schalmont Central School District, which he attended.
"That was great, it was like bringing history alive right into the classroom for the students, and things like that help to create a sense of patriotism for the youth, and serve as effective outreach for younger veterans," he said.
Loparco said recruiting younger veterans for organizations remains a persistent problem.
"If you're a young person, if you have children, maybe you're working two jobs, you just don't have time it seems like. Nobody has any time anymore," he said.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, both attended the memorial. Tonko said he found the way in which the Sons of Italy were able to express both American pride and ethnic Italian pride together was a great example of the diversity of American culture.
"I think the monument is a very appropriate and heartwarming thank you to veterans of all vintages," he said.
Tedisco said he's been a member of the Sons of Italy for 42 years. He said his father served in World War II and he's given many speeches at veterans events over the years and always leaves feeling like "he never measured up." He said he's found the best way to honor veterans with words is to quote Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
"At Gettysburg the only thing Lincoln had wrong was that no one would remember that speech," Tedisco said. "What he had right was when he said any words he had to say, any commemoration, cannot sanctify or commemorate the sacrifices these men have made, because its in the blood, sweat and tears of that battleground. And that's how I feel when I talk to veterans. We can never show that appreciation, but we've got to try."