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VIETNAM ANNIVERSARY A SOMBER AFFAIR

A stone wall of remembrance on Buffalo's waterfront provided a somber setting Saturday to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of Vietnam War.

The divisive war still evokes strong emotions from those who served in the military and from those who left or avoided serving.

Peter Montemurno is no longer the eager young soldier who proudly went to Vietnam to fight. He is now a 60-year-old Getzville resident who choked back tears Saturday as he proudly recalled the dedication of veterans who returned home to a hostile reception.

Bruce L. Beyer now finds it hard to believe how fiercely he resisted the war, giving fiery speeches and letting his emotions run wild with anti-war sentiment -- though the Buffalo man says he never regreted his decision to flee the country rather than go to war.

And Minh Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who now lives in Buffalo, cannot forget the carnage he saw as a boy growing up in a country racked by civil war.

By any measure, Saturday was not a day of joy for most who remembered it.

"All our brothers and sisters who served in Vietnam wanted just one thing: to come home to our loved ones and the country we loved. We were treated as the enemy, not as servicemen and women of the United States," Montemurno said, struggling to maintain his composure at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Servicemen's Park. "Service organizations did not want us, and many veterans had a hard time finding employment."

Speaking to other veterans who gathered at the park, he urged citizens to avoid taking out their frustrations on returning war veterans if they disagree with the U.S. government's policies toward conflicts.

"They are only serving their country," he said.

Patrick W. Welch, president of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, recalled the high price paid by those who served:

* 3.2 million Americans were sent to the Vietnam theater.

* 58,320 Americans were killed in action, and more than 100,000 died because of wounds and other problems related to service in Vietnam.

* 1,835 service personnel are still unaccounted for.

He also paid special tribute to the sacrifices of local members of the armed forces as he stood in front of the military park's Vietnam War memorial -- a dark stone wall etched with the names of 508 local individuals either killed in action, declared missing in action or prisoners of war.

Their service, he said, was not in vain. "When I look back to before the war, countries were falling left and right to communism," Welch said. "But after Vietnam, only one or two countries fell to communism, and 14 years after the war, the Berlin Wall came down."

As for those who refused to serve, Welch said he has no tolerance for them. "They should not have been given clemency to come back," he said. "It's a privilege to live in this country."

Beyer, a Buffalo peace activist, says he has never looked back on his decision to leave the country rather than serve in Vietnam.

"I'm absolutely, totally comfortable with the decision I made. In fact, I'm quite proud of the people who resisted," said the 56-year-old Beyer, who returned to the United States in 1977, 10 years after he fled to Canada and Sweden. Beyer says he recently traveled to Toronto and met with Jeremy Hinzman, an Army deserter who is appealing Canada's refusal to grant him political asylum to avoid serving in Iraq.

"I told him the choices are lifelong, and I guess he's comfortable with that," said Beyer, who works with a group of Canadians trying to provide a haven for American war resisters.

Minh Tran says he can't forget the death and destruction he witnessed as a boy growing up in Vietnam, where his father served in the military fighting the communists.

"I remember we had to run away from Cam Ranh Bay because the communists took over. We saw a lot of guns and people die because of bombs. It looked like Iraq right now. You'd see people dead every day," said Minh, who has lived in Buffalo since 1980 when his family came here under the sponsorship of a local church.

He believes that if U.S. forces had stayed in Vietnam, the South would have won and his family would not have been forced to flee.

But Tran, now 46, says that is in the past and he is spending the 30th anniversary counting his blessings. He works as a case manager for refugee resettlement at the International Institute and operates a small assembly plant.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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