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Tears, longing tell the story as Vietnam War veterans honored at DeSales

DeSales Vietnam Vets day salute.jpg
Phil Gianficaro
Vietnam War veterans and their family members were honored during a ceremony at DeSales University on Wednesday. March 29 has been designated as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — The Wednesday ceremony at DeSales University recognized the well of tears in Navy and Vietnam War veteran Bill Nixon’s eyes.

The ceremony also recognized the other veterans and families gathered to remember.

The deep sadness for Nixon, a Phillipsburg, NJ, native, remains more than 50 years since he heard about his two childhood friends who fought in Vietnam and were never found.

The recognition also was for the longing Maureen Hickman Caporaso’s crystal blue eyes.

  • DeSales University hosted a Vietnam War Commemoration Ceremony program on Wedneday
  • The event was held in conjunction with the observance every March 29 of National Vietnam War Veterans Day
  • Cmdr. James S. Turner, Jr., US Navy, retired, was featured speaker

She's a daughter still wondering what became of her father, an Air Force captain and Easton native shot down from the skies of war in 1964 when she was just 4.
A little girl’s daddy stolen from her by the ravages of war.

The recognition was for them and for the banquet room full of Vietnam War veterans and family members there to witness a commemoration of honor and duty long overdue.

On Wednesday, for a second consecutive year, DeSales University held a Vietnam War Commemoration Ceremony program.

The event was held in conjunction with the observance every March 29 of National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

Commander James Turner Veterans Day at DeSales.jpg
Phil Gianficaro
Retired U.S. Navy Commander James J. Turner, Jr., a Schuylkill County native, was featured speaker at a commemoration of Vietnam War veterans at DeSales University on Wednesday.

The Commonwealth Room was bursting with pride, honor and patriotism. There were color guards, a Pledge of Allegiance, salutes, the blowing of taps, and prayers.

“Special events like this one show us that we have not been forgotten."
Commander James S. Turner, Jr., U.S. Navy, retired

Featured speaker Cmdr. James S. Turner, Jr., U.S. Navy, retired, summarized the feelings of every Vietnam veteran — there and elsewhere.

“Special events like this one show us that we have not been forgotten,” said Turner, 83, a Schuylkill County native, who served 34 years of active duty, including five on an aircraft carrier during bombing missions off the coasts of North and South Vietnam.

Unlike the hero status of returning veterans from World War II, the soldiers who returned from Vietnam were portrayed as baby killers, drug addicts and psychos. It was not uncommon for returning veterans at airports to be met by protesters carrying anti-war signs.

“When I was coming back home, people who opposed the war were throwing rocks at our ship from the Golden Gate Bridge," Turner said. "Back then, they were just hearing one side of the story from the government.

"Today, people are finally and fully accepting what happened in Vietnam. The veterans deserve to finally be celebrated.”

Turner jokingly said that when he was asked to be the event speaker about a month ago, he tried on his old uniform, but it didn’t fit. He said he moved one of the buttons on his jacket, but it still didn’t fit.

However, every aspect of the commemoration program fit perfectly.

Vietnam Vets

A number of local veterans organizations are also participating in the event, including John Rivers Memorial VFW Post 11322, Quakertown; Vietnam Veterans of America Lehigh Valley Chapter 415; Egypt VFW Post 7293, Whitehall Township; Fleet Reserve Association, Black Diamond Branch No. 115; Bethlehem Detachment No. 284 Marine Corps League; Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 0190-PA-1; and Lehigh Valley Military Affairs Council.

DeSales Assistant Professor Thomas Craig noted that over the past 11 years, more than 12,000 local and state organizations have worked with the U.S. Defense Department to hold about 24,000 commemoration ceremonies to thank the 3.4 million Vietnam veterans and their families.

Navy vet Bill Nixon at DeSales Vietnam Vets Day.jpg
Phil Gianficaro
U.S. Navy veteran Bill Nixon still mourns his two childhood friends whose helicopters were shot down during the Vietnam War. Their remains have never been found.

Nixon smiled when asked about how Vietnam veterans are finally being recognized for their service.

Suddenly, his mood fell somber. He spoke of two of his childhood friends — Billy Konyu and Jimmy Suydam — whose whereabouts are unknown. In separate incidents, the Army veterans’ UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in South Vietnam. Konyu’s in April 1969; Suydam’s six months later.

Konyu was 22 years old.

Suydam went missing five days after his 22nd birthday.

“I was serving in Great Lakes, Ill., when I heard about them,” said Nixon, a member of the Lehigh Valley Fleet Reserve Association, Black Diamond Branch 115, Bethlehem.

His emotions wouldn’t allow him to say much more.

Caporaso keeps her father close only in snapshots. There’s one of him making a mess of her bangs as he cut her hair as a child. Another of him pinching her cheeks together, causing her lips to pucker. A subsequent kiss from dad was sure to follow.

“It makes me very happy that the Vietnam veterans are being recognized, respected, and thanked for their service,” said Caporaso, a Gold Star Congressional Aide and Veteran and Military Liaison in the office of Rep. Susan Wild, D-Lehigh Valley.

“This is very cathartic for me.

“It’s been a long time, but I’m still trying to grasp what happened to my father. When he went missing, my mother was 29 with four daughters under the age of 5 in Willingboro.”

DeSales event Capt. Hickman bracelet.jpg
Phil Gianficaro
Maureen Hickman Caporaso wears the military memorial bracelet for her father, USAF Capt. Vincent J. Hickman, whose plane was shot down in Vietnam. His body was never recovered.

As Caporaso spoke, she motioned her left hand for emphasis. The silver military memorial bracelet with Capt. Vincent J. Hickman’s rank and the date his plane was shot down gleamed under the bright lights.

Caporaso is committed to learning what happened to her father. She said she will meet soon with members of the DPAA, or Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover American military personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action.

“Depending on what they tell me, I’m planning on a trip to Vietnam,” she said. “I have to find out what happened to my father.”

Professor Craig announced there would be a presentation of commemorative lapel pins to the Vietnam veterans. He described the pins — bronze colored with a visage of the American eagle on a blue field, with stars.

“It’s at this time I would usually ask you to hold your applause until all the veterans have received their pins,” Craig said. “But we’ve been holding our applause for 50 years.”