Vietnam vets recall service, honor comrades on Memorial Day

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Sprague - posted Wed., Jun. 1, 2011
Herbert Savage Jr. of Baltic, a Vietnam-era vet, ponders the veterans' plaques in Sprague's Memorial Park. His own name is on the plaque dedicated May 30. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Herbert Savage Jr. of Baltic, a Vietnam-era vet, ponders the veterans' plaques in Sprague's Memorial Park. His own name is on the plaque dedicated May 30. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Tom Coletti paused for a long, long moment in the middle of his speech to the townspeople assembled in the heart of Sprague to mark Memorial Day.

He’d been talking about the many physical monuments Americans have erected to honor their war dead. “But instead of seeing a stone monument or a bronze plaque,” he continued, “I see the faces of young men and women…”

And there he stopped, for more than a few seconds. In the midday heat, the crowd waited silently for him to collect himself and to regain his voice. “…young men and women who went off to Vietnam, some of them never returning,” he continued.

Coletti, the adjutant of American Legion Post 85 of Baltic, admitted later that he’d been picturing some very specific faces. Four decades ago, he served a stint as a medic during the Vietnam War, working on air evacuation out of Hawaii and the Philippines.

Though never in combat himself, Coletti dealt daily with the bloody results of war on the people who fought it. “They were getting shot at, and I was picking them up and shipping them back home,” he said.

They were all so young, Coletti recalled. “Nineteen years old, most of them. I wonder today what they’re doing... They were all faceless people. I don’t even remember names.”

But Coletti – and the residents of many local towns – certainly remembered their sacrifice during May 30 ceremonies.

In Sprague, residents dedicated a new plaque in the park honoring 187 native sons and daughters whose names had been omitted, for whatever reason, from plaques for previous wars, dating back to World War I. It also includes armed forces vets who served between conflicts.

Herbert Savage Jr., a Sprague native who just moved back to town a few months ago, was astonished to find his name on the plaque for his service in Vietnam.

“This is a total surprise to me,” he said. An Army vet who served between 1962 and 1965, he came from a family with a strong military tradition.

“My father, two aunts and six uncles were all in uniform at the same time” during World War II, he said. A newspaper account of the time referred to them as “Preston City’s Fighting Family.” The family moved to Sprague after the war.

Joe Crider of Griswold counted the engraved names of his Sayles Elementary classmates who were drafted for Vietnam– 15 in all.

“Everyone [male] in my grammar school class is on that plaque,” he said. “We were drafted in 1968 – May 6, a day of infamy.” Two busloads of Sprague boys made the trip to Norwich to start their military careers, he said.

And most of them came back, Crider said, including his two brothers, Roger and Ronald, drafted at the same time. “When things really started getting hot over there… my dad said, ‘Your name’s Crider. You’re going to get drafted – it starts with C.’” Now their names adorn the Vietnam era plaque.

Crider attended the ceremony with a young friend, Joseph Buttacavoli, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is now staying with Crider.

“Somebody looked out for me when I got back,” Crider said, “and now I’m looking out for him. And someday he’ll be looking out for someone else.”

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