Vietnam vets discuss experiences
Veterans to be honored at upcoming ceremony
HOLLIDAYSBURG — He returned from Vietnam 51 years ago, but the knowledge that he had to speak publicly about his experience Tuesday kept Dan Martellacci up the night before.
“Just knowing I was going to speak today, my mind was over there,” he said.
Martellacci was part of a panel that talked about the special commemorative pins that Vietnam veterans who live in Blair County will receive Nov. 8 as part of a ceremony in their honor. The pins were created as part of a federal commission, officially called the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, for all veterans who served on active duty from Nov. 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975.
According to the commission, created by federal law to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, 9 million Americans served on active duty in the Armed Forces, of which about 7 million were alive as of Memorial Day 2012 when the commission was created. The commission’s work, which will conclude on Veterans Day 2025, is a multi-dimensional approach including federal, state and local partners to honor Vietnam War veterans in various ways including the special pins.
The panel that met Tuesday at Legion Park in Hollidaysburg included federal and state lawmakers and veterans like Martellacci. They unveiled plans for the Nov. 8 ceremony that will be held at the Jaffa Shrine in Altoona, which is where the pins will be presented.
The main speaker at the ceremony will be former Pittsburgh Steelers football star and motivational speaker Rocky Bleier, who fought in and was wounded in the Vietnam War.
U.S. Rep. John Joyce complimented state Rep. Jim Gregory for organizing the November event, along with area veterans’ groups and others who worked on the project. But he said the primary purpose of the event is to honor the Vietnam veterans, who were forgotten for too long.
“Rocky Bleier is one of my personal heroes but you are our heroes, too,” Joyce said. “This is shining a light through the context of Rocky Bleier, but you are shining a light as heroes who walk among us each and every day.”
Gregory said when he was planning the event for the veterans, along with fellow state Reps. Judy Ward and Lou Schmitt, he looked for someone he knew could handle such a momentous occasion. He turned to Altoona native Rocco Scalzi, the founder of the youth non-profit foundation Beating the Odds.
Scalzi, who served in the Navy near the end of the Vietnam war, said he and Bleier are now partners in the foundation that he started. Beating the Odds serves not only students but also veterans, Scalzi said.
“I know if I go to Rocky with a request for veterans, he’s there,” he said.
Ceremonies like the one that will be held in Altoona on the Friday of Veterans Day weekend are like balm to healing wounds, said some of the veterans who came to Tuesday’s event.
Even though times have changed since the men and women returned from wherever they were stationed 50 years ago, and society has become more accepting of Vietnam War veterans, many of those who served during the Vietnam War still feel the pain as if they’d been injured just yesterday.
Many soldiers coming home from Vietnam were met with hostility, unlike their counterparts from previous and later wars who were greeted with open arms and joyful celebrations.
“I, for one, felt like I had to be smuggled into the country,” said John Gority of Altoona, who served in the Army and lost part of his leg in Vietnam.
The experience of being in combat has left more than physical effects on him.
Even now, Gority said he dislikes being in large gatherings because he gets spooked by being around too many people and loud noises.
“Big crowds scare me,” he said.
Pat Young, director of Blair County Veterans Affairs, served with the Army in Iraq. When he came home from military duty, he got a hero’s welcome, he said.
But he was at the meeting Tuesday to introduce Martellacci, his father-in-law. Young said he wished Martellacci, one of 13,000 veterans in the county, had a better homecoming.
Martellacci said that even though he was drafted, “I gave 110 percent” as a helicopter door gunner. He said his job with the Army 173rdAssault Helicopter Unit was to take soldiers to an area and then days later, bring them out.
“Their faces, when we’d take them in, they’d be all smiling and eager to go, then when we’d pick them up, it was like you’d added 20 years to their faces,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t always pick all of them back up.”
He said when he first came back home, like Gority, he was closemouthed about his service.
“My parents told me, ‘Don’t even tell anybody that you were there,'” he said.
He said he thinks the reason so many Vietnam veterans still struggle with the past is because the monuments, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., commemorates the soldiers who died. Those who live on find it difficult to cope with their feelings from a conflict that was controversial, Martellacci said.
“I always felt like I shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “But I’ve come a long way. It feels good now to wear my Vietnam veteran hat and have a Vietnam veteran license plate.”
He will also be at the Jaffa on Nov. 8, getting his pin from Bleier, he said.
“I was one of the lucky ones to come home,” he said. “A lot didn’t. Some left part of their limbs, some left part of their souls.”
Vietnam War commemorative pins are available for Blair County veterans who served from 1955-75. For more information, contact Jennifer Mearkle by calling 656-6081 or emailing
Jennifer.Mearkle@mail.house.gov or Deb Pensyl Reasy at 695-2398 or firstname.lastname@example.org.