Memorial Day became an official national holiday in 1971 to celebrate the fallen soldiers from American wars. In one of those wars — Vietnam — an estimated 8,744,000 soldiers from the United States served from 1964-1975. Nearly 60,000 American soldiers were killed in the conflict and another 1,601 soldiers were unaccounted for.
However, the Vietnam War didn't end when soldiers came home, and many who fought overseas didn't receive a warm welcome upon returning to the United States. Yet, two Vietnam veterans who after the conflict moved to the Gunnison Valley say they found a greater sense of public appreciation for their service than they did elsewhere in the country.
Gunnison residents and Vietnam veterans Dale Briels and Frank Phillip Cuccaro Jr. visited Gunnison High School on May 16 to speak to Kevin Mickelson’s U.S. history class about their personal experiences serving in the military during the Vietnam War — and the years that followed.
Both men were drafted when the war was at its peak in the 101st Airborne division— and experienced the horrors, hardships and honor of serving their country.
Cuccaro was drafted in 1968 at the age of 20 and spent a total of 18 months in Vietnam. Similarly, Briels was drafted at age 20 and served from 1971-1972.
“I was against the war. I didn't want to be there, but I had no choice,” said Cuccaro. “It’s something I’ll never get over.”
When Cuccaro was in Vietnam, upon hearing of protests in the United States, he didn't have time to pay much attention.
“I said, ‘Look mom and dad, I cannot worry about what’s happening back in New York. If I do I’m coming home in a box,’” explained Cuccaro of his home state.
But he couldn't avoid the protests forever, and when he arrived back home in New York City, he was met with unfriendly faces and shame.
“I didn't get a grand welcome home,” recalled Cuccaro. “I got spit on by people and called names in uniform.”
In fact, the moment he returned from the war at the John F. Kennedy Airport, he couldn't even get a cab home while wearing his military uniform.
Eventually, Cuccaro got a cop to intervene so he could make his way home, and when he arrived he left his cabbie a tip.
“I said, ‘Here’s a tip, don't ever do this again to a soldier,’” said Cuccaro.
Briels had similar experiences of distrust and disrespect when he found his way home from Vietnam.
“I walked into the Oakland airport and a young mother with her two little kids got down on her knees and hugged her kids,” said Briels. “She looked at me like I was gonna kill them.”
While Briels acknowledged that Vietnam veterans often were called “baby killers” he said he would have defended the youngsters in the airport with his life. And while he strongly supports a person’s right to protest, he’s not a fan of people “protesting the wars we’re involved in because I’ve had bad experiences with that,” he added.
Still, both veterans noted the support they’ve received since moving to Gunnison.
“We get a free meal every Thursday night at the Gunnisack. I never got a free meal in New York, never got even so much as a handshake,” said Cuccaro. “I lived in Florida for 12 years, and I never got a free meal, never got a handshake.”
“This town I get more thanks than anywhere else,” he added. “It’s fantastic, and I really appreciate that.”
On Monday, May 28 at 10 a.m., a memorial service will be held at the Gunnison cemetery. The American Legion Post, SAL, Auxiliary and the Boy Scout Troop 476 will honor the veterans who served their country.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org .)