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War stories come to life

November 13, 2018

STAMFORD — The first Michael Vagnone fought in the infantry during World War I. He returned to Stamford to raise a family.

The second Michael Vagnone saw combat in Europe during World War II. He, too, returned to Stamford and raised a family.

The third Michael Vagnone enlisted in the Army for a tour in Vietnam.

He was the Michael Vagnone who did not return.

A half-century later, his story has come to life in a book about Stamford residents who served in Vietnam — a war that raged in Southeast Asia and on television screens at home for a decade, provoking nationwide protest.

In the never-declared war, troops cycled in and out of Vietnam in one-year tours. Towns couldn’t keep track, and little is known about who served and what became of them.

Now “An American Town and the Vietnam War: Stories of Service from Stamford, Connecticut,” by father-and-son team Tony and Matt Pavia, chronicles the lives of 29 residents killed in the war and three dozen who returned.

The authors will be at the Harry Bennett branch of the Ferguson Library, 115 Vine Road, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the book.

The authors don’t know that they’ve found everyone from Stamford who died in Vietnam — they don’t even know how many served. But it is the best record they could compile using military records, websites and memorials; birth records; obituaries; yearbooks; libraries; VFW halls; Stamford Advocate archives; help from Dan Burke of the Stamford History Center; and family interviews.

They learned that the third Michael Vagnone was a handsome, talented musician who was 22 when he was killed in a South Vietnam jungle. He enlisted after studying plumbing at J.M. Wright Technical High School, graduating and working in his trade, marrying his girlfriend and adopting her three small children.

Inclined to serve

It’s a misconception that few who served in Vietnam enlisted, said Matt Pavia, 38, a Stamford native and English teacher at Darien High School.

“Like a lot of people, I thought the majority were drafted and went reluctantly. That turned out not to be the case,” he said. “Nationwide, more enlisted than in World War II.”

The inclination to enlist had to do with growing up with fathers and uncles who served in World War II, he said.

“They thought you graduate high school and then you enlist,” he said. “It’s what you do when you’re an American. You serve your country.”

He said they believed they were doing their part to fight communism, a threat first identified by U.S. leaders in the 1950s, when communist North Vietnam began encroaching on the democratic South, backed by the Soviet Union. U.S. leaders foresaw a push to expand communism far beyond.

They sent “advisors,” followed by an escalating number of troops. By the 1960s, it was in the tens of thousands. At home, nightly newscasts showed soldiers burning villages where Marines had been killed, and the U.S. military’s use of napalm and Agent Orange and the effects on innocent Vietnamese. It ignited anti-war demonstrations.

Hard homecomings

“The kids who fought in Vietnam were flown directly into the jungle and dropped at a base,” Matt Pavia said. “When their year was up, they were flown home, some still in their camouflage, directly from the jungle.”

They were spat on, kicked, screamed at: “Baby killer!” and “Murderer!”

Veteran Greg Sigler told the authors how he arrived at the Port Authority Terminal in New York and saw a peace demonstration going down 7th Avenue.

“I was still in my uniform, and the police stopped me and said, ‘Where are you going?’ I told them, ‘I’m going to catch a cab to Grand Central so I can get home to Stamford.’ They said. ‘Not like that you’re not. … You can’t go out in your uniform. They’ll tear you apart.’”

Veteran James Tessitore found it hard to be home.

It “was difficult because everyone had an opinion,” Tessitore told the authors. “Some would say, ‘Well, too bad you guys lost.’ I’d want to say, ‘I didn’t see anyone give up. Nobody surrendered.’ But mostly I just didn’t talk about it with anyone.”

A city, a nation

The book includes the story of David Bland, of Stamford, who wrote a letter to the draft board explaining why he couldn’t fight. It tells of Ralph DelVecchio, whose job in Vietnam was to bag the bodies of his fallen comrades, trying to match their body parts. Diane DiGiacomo, wife of Vietnam veteran Anthony, describes years of helping him cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Just from Stamford people we got a panoramic view of the war, every branch of service, from the front lines to the rear, overseas and at home,” Matt Pavia said. “As much as the book is about Stamford, nothing about it is unique to Stamford. It’s a microcosm of the nation’s experiences in the war.”

Tony Pavia, 64, former Stamford history teacher and principal of Stamford, New Canaan, and Trinity Catholic high schools, said the stereotype of Vietnam veterans as angry, disillusioned outlaws is a myth.

“They are, by and large, exceptionally successful, the most educated group of veterans ever. They are largely selfless people who tried hard to emulate their fathers and grandfathers, and returned home to become the architects of their communities,” Tony Pavia said. “To this day, they express bewilderment about how they were treated. They believed they were defending the country. I think every veteran today should thank the Vietnam veterans because the country finally woke up and realized how badly they were handled, and now there is respect for veterans.”

Tony Pavia said the second Michael Vagnone, now in his mid-90s, is happy his son is remembered. The Vietnam soldier is buried in St. John Cemetery with the World War I soldier, Vagnone told the authors, saying, “Someday I will join them.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296

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