Vietnam veterans remembered 50 years later in Londonderry
LONDONDERRY — Shortly after coming home from his six-month tour of Vietnam in 1971, Steve Costa tucked his uniform in the back of a closet, wanting to put the experience behind him.
“I just didn’t want to talk about it,” said Costa, who was drafted into the Army at age 21.
Despite suffering an injury after a friend stepped on a landmine and later earning both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart during his brief time there, nothing could have prepared the Londonderry school custodian for his return home.
“I was actually fortunate,” Costa mused. “I think by the time I came home people were getting tired of protesting. But you’d still encounter hostility.”
“We just didn’t feel very appreciated,” he added.
Like many of his generation, Costa’s life was forever changed by his experiences on the battlefield and the reactions of fellow citizens upon his return.
Today, those who fought in the Vietnam War are coming to terms with their often-painful pasts, with many trading in their years of silence for the sense of pride and camaraderie they’d previously only felt comfortable sharing with their fellow servicemen and women.
On Saturday afternoon, the 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemorative Recognition Day, Costa was among a dozen or so Vietnam-era veterans attending a celebration in their honor at American Legion Post 27.
Over a potluck luncheon, veterans and their loved ones freely shared their stories with pride: something that didn’t always happen several decades ago.
Manchester resident Billy Large, an active member of the local American Legion post, organized the event in hopes of honoring his brothers in arms.
Large, an Army veteran injured in combant, spent two years as a helicopter crew chief, pilot and medic in Vietnam between 1969-1971.
Large’s battles continued when he returned home. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
That hasn’t stopped him from giving back to others.
During two weeks, Large raced to put together plans, determined the 50th anniversary day wouldn’t pass without fanfare.
Large approached Post Commander Bob Stuart, who gave Large his blessing.
Stuart, a Gulf War veteran, was touched by the differences between his and Large’s respective homecomings.
“I marched in big parades and was showered with thanks,” said Stuart. “But in the Vietnam era, things were so different.”
“We were spit on when we came home. People threw things at us,” Large said on Saturday. “But today is our day.”
Opening the celebration up to any area veterans, Large posted an invitation on the Post’s Facebook page and also placed announcements in area newspapers.
As word spread, more veterans came forward.
Marine Corps veteran Eugene Grivois, who served in Vietnam from 1964-1965, said he was pleased to partake in Saturday’s celebration.
“You just can’t do enough for all these guys,” he said.
Frank Torre said he served in the 101st Airborne division from late 1966 through late 1967. He’d ultimately fight in the Mother’s Day Massacre, which claimed the life of 20 members of his 29-member squad.
“It was a tough time, being 18-years-old and being in the infantry,” recalled Torre, of Londonderry. “I carried a machine gun around for nine months. When my tour ended, I was sent home through San Francisco. I wasn’t welcomed.”
Naval veteran Charlie Sullivan, who served from 1968-1970, enlisted at the age of 17.
“The welcome we received coming home wasn’t exactly gracious,” the Londonderry resident said.
Torre added that it “probably took him about 15 or 20 years to talk about Vietnam out in the open.
Sullivan nodded knowingly. “You’d maybe talk about it with other veterans,” he said. “That was about it.”
Both agreed that things have changed for the better, noting that nearby schools in Derry and Londonderry regular host events, such as veterans’ breakfasts, to show appreciation for those who served.
“Now I’ll be in the supermarket and some young kids will come right up to me,” Sullivan said. “They’ll say, ’welcome home.’ ”
Northwood resident Jim Lutz, a gunner on a destroyer ship, said he completed three, 6- to 8-month tours in Vietnam between 1968-1970.
“It was a very hairy time,” he concluded, though admitted his experiences coming home were somewhat kinder than those of some of the others.
Growing up in the small town of Fremont, Lutz said it was relatively easy to jump back into civilian life and he remained proud of the work he’d accomplished in his Naval career.