According to Brigadier General Maria Falca -Dodson, who serves as the state's Deputy adjunct general and the first women general in the history of the New Jersey National Guard, Vietnam veterans were treated differently. She also added that while people who came home from other conflicts were greeted with cheers, many of these veterans were greeted with silence.
Falca-Dodson apologized for coming to the ceremony dressed in camouflaged fatigues - a kind of military work uniform.
"This ceremony deserves my wearing a Class A uniform," she said at the ceremony. "I was called in at the last moment and I came straight up here from Fort Dix. This is an important ceremony. We can never repay our debt to you. And I want to take this opportunity to welcome you home."
Barry Dugan, former freeholder from Bayonne, discovered a similar program ongoing in another county and decided Hudson County could also honor its veterans.
A former Marine, Dugan led the move to get the program started, then began with World War II veterans, because of their advanced age, then followed with similar programs for the Korean War veterans.
"This is our first ceremony honoring the Vietnam veterans, but we will have more ceremonies in the future," he said.
Veterans came from every part of Hudson County to participate in the event and many accompanied by family members and friends. Most wore some aspect of their former uniforms, while others wore red caps of veterans groups, and some wore khaki-colored hats as if they had come straight out of the jungles of Vietnam.
Dignitaries from around the county came to pay tribute to the veterans, including Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, who is also a Vietnam War veteran, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, Freeholders Jeff Dublin and Doreen DiDomenico, Kearny Mayor Al Santos and others.
Freeholder Chairman Thomas Liggio of North Bergen, also a Vietnam veteran, also received a metal for his service. He served in the United States Army in Vietnam from 1962 to 1964.
"I'm very proud to have received this medal," he said. "And as a Freeholder, I'm proud to have played a part in making these ceremonies possible."
County Executive Tom DeGise touched upon a sensitive aspect of the war's history, saying it was a very controversial war, similar to feelings about the current war in Iraq. Because of this, returning veterans did not receive the accolades they were due when returning home.
"You put your butts on the line for us," he said. "Fortunately it is not too late to say thanks."
Veterans from around the county
Dugan said a majority of the medals on this night went to Bayonne residents only because the veterans' community in Bayonne responded well in spreading the word. He said he has tried to reach out to every community in the county and that he hopes more will come forward to get honored.
Of the 84 medals issued, 31 went to Bayonne veterans. Vietnam veterans were honored from nine of the 12 Hudson County municipalities, Dugan said.
Mayor Elwell, when asked why he had not applied, grinned a little and shrugged, apparently unwilling to nominate himself for the award. Several other Vietnam veterans said they knew about it but did not want to participate, although they declined to say why not.
Dugan pointed out that the medals were issued to both Vietnam veterans and Vietnam era veterans. The first actually served on the warfront, while the second group served in other parts of the country.
"More than one million soldiers served in Vietnam, but many others also served their country during that time," he said.
About two-thirds of those who received medals in this ceremony served in Vietnam during the war years, and many of these veterans received Purple Heart citations for wounds they received. Others have received honors for acts of courage under fire.
Some of the medal recipients have become well known in Hudson County, such as former Jersey City Councilman Jamie Vazquez, who currently serves as the director of Veterans Affairs in Jersey City.
Robert Gordon, the deputy police chief of North Bergen, also received a medal.
Ordinary people who served their country
Most of those who came to receive their honors picked up their lives after their service to their country.
Anthony Blazini, formerly of Hoboken, now of Jersey City, promised his childhood sweetheart that he would come home to marry her as he was headed off to the Vietnam conflict. War was unpredictable, but he served his term from 1966 to 1967. A few days after he returned home, he married her.
"I got back on August 1, 1967, and four days later we were married," he said. He'll be celebrating his 40th anniversary on August 4.
Some of the medals were awarded posthumously, such as the one given to Charles "Buster" Fisher of Kearny, whose mother Ann, came to collect it for him.
Dugan said she had no way to get to the event, so one of the local councilmen in Kearny transported her to the ceremony.
As the stooped and gray haired woman made her way down the center aisle leaning heavily on her cane to receive the award, veterans and their families stood and gave her and her deceased son a standing ovation.
Brothers in arms
Sal Mione, a 1964 graduate of Bayonne High School, had come to get two medals, one for his own service in Vietnam - he served in the U.S. Army Calvary Division from 1966 to 1968 - and the other for his brother Anthony Mione, also of Bayonne, who died as a result of hostile fire on August 22, 1969.
"We both attended Bayonne High School and went into the military after we graduated," he said.
Mione, who is very active in veteran's activities throughout the state of New Jersey, has received numerous honors for his service, including the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and a Presidential Unit Citation.
Welcome home finally
Bayonne Councilman Ted Connolly, also a Vietnam Veteran, said the ceremonies brought back a lot of memories.
"Many years flashed by me last night," he said. "I leaned over to my wife and told her that I used to walk by the Brennan Courthouse everyday on my way home from Dickinson High School. I told her it was my senior year when I stopped at the 'island' at Journal Square that December of 1965 and spoke to the recruiter. I wound up joining, but didn't have to leave for basic training until September 1966. To be sitting in the courthouse over 40 years from that time.....well it didn't seem that long ago. I was proud then and I am proud now."
He said looking around at all of the Vietnam veterans choked him up.
"Many of them have been my friends for close to 25 years," he said. "It was a special welcome home. When the MC noted the length of the Vietnam War and the fact that very few of us were recognized on our return home, but then said that today all of the veterans of Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. are heroes...that penetrated to my soul. I looked around and thought of that special saying that is the founding principle of the Vietnam veterans of America, 'Never again will one generation of veterans ever abandon another.'"
He said he was particularly moved by General Falca-Dodson's remarks.
"[That] welcome home had a very special meaning for me last night," Connolly said. "I truly felt I was home."