Harry Perks made sure he was at the opening ceremony for the Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall that was on display in Middle Village last weekend.
“But I won’t go up there,” he said. “I have too many friends on that wall. We all enlisted together. We went to school together, where a lot of us got in trouble together.”
The wall, which last came to Queens in 2004, was open to the public from June 29 until Monday morning. It carries the names of 512 Queens residents.
A color guard was provided by Queens Chapter 32 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. The chapter’s president, Paul Narson, spoke, as did John Rowan of Middle Village, who is the national president of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Members of the New York Military Youth cadets also joined in the ceremony, as did numerous elected officials.
Tony Nunziato of Maspeth grew up in Woodside. The family was proud when his brother, Aniello, enlisted with his friends and earned his wings as a paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles — the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division.
He would be promoted to the rank of corporal posthumously in 1968, dying three days after his 21st birthday, one of 22 Woodside men to give his life for his country in southeast Asia.
“Woodside had 17 guys killed in one ZIP code,” Nunziato said. “That was the most in the country. But it was what you did. Everyone in my family served. My uncle died in World War II.”
A successful businessman and longtime civic leader in the Maspeth area, Nunziato said the sense of loss does not dissipate over 44 years.
“It denied me my brother, nephews, all the things he would have achieved,” Nunziato lamented.
Former state Senator Serf Maltese, a proud veteran of the Korean War, said recognition for Vietnam veterans still is lacking, though not as much as when they came home.
“Some people confused the warriors with the war,” he said.
Perks, who went on to join the NYPD when he got home, said the day itself is a sign that things have gotten better.
“These guys can wear their caps and shirts today,” he said. “We used to have to keep them in the closet.”
Marine Corps Pvt. Theodore O’Brien of Manhattan had been in Vietnam for 15 days when he was killed in action at age 18.
On Friday, his mother, Catherine Mack of the Gold Star Mothers, received a standing ovation from the crowd in Middle Village.
She implored the Vietnam veterans to help those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq receive the homecoming that they were denied, and that her son would never have.
“There is a new generation coming home,” Mack said. “And a new generation of those who have left their tomorrows on the battlefield.”
In a lighter moment, Rowan, who served in the Air Force, made reference to Friday’s blistering heat by teasing Pat Toro, a former Marine, former Forest Hills resident and a current member of the national board of directors of VVA.
“The difference between the Air Force and the Marines is that I’m smart enough to take off my jacket,” Rowan commented.
“What he means is that he can’t fit in his any more,” retorted the uniformed Toro.
Toro, who has since spent decades fighting on the home front for Vietnam veterans’ causes, acknowledged that the event was hard for him, as it was for many. “We’re still working to be accepted, and it hurts,” he said.
Toro still suffers from the effects of combat, of Agent Orange — and of survivor’s guilt with the loss of so many of his friends.
Helping his comrades and the newer generations of combat veterans helps keep him going. “As long as I can wake up knowing that I can make a difference, I will,” he said.
Perks added that while the recognition for their service has been slow in coming, he does not consider himself a hero for what he did.
“I came home. Those guys,” he observed, pointing to the wall, “are heroes.”