In April 1971, Bob Sargis came home from the Vietnam War. As the West Seneca native walked through the Buffalo airport, onlookers threw eggs and tomatoes at him, spat on him and yelled “baby killer.”
For years, the community “wanted nothing to do with me,” he said. The war was one of America’s most controversial events.
But Sunday, Western New York showed that any bitterness toward Vietnam veterans has been replaced with gratitude.
Nearly 200 people gathered around the Vietnam Memorial under the bright sun, next to the waterfront, and faced the newly refurbished monument, which was built in 1984. Buffalo’s Monument Restoration Committee raised $10,000 to repaint the names of the Western New Yorkers who sacrificed their lives and repair the cracks that the weather has caused, in time for the monument’s 30th anniversary.
After the service in Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, folks approached veterans, including Sargis, shook their hands and said “thank you.”
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, the general public now coming up and thanking us for what we did, it took a long time to get our payback, but it comes in little pieces throughout the years,” said Sargis, 64, who now lives in North Tonawanda. “To see people pay homage and have (the monument) refurbished is moving.”
At the hourlong commemoration, Western New Yorkers who served in Vietnam, like Steve Banko, gave speeches to honor the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Banko, a member of the Monument Restoration Committee, pointed to one of the names on the wall. He played baseball against the fallen soldier when they were in grammar school. He emphasized how important it is to remember the lives of those who died in Vietnam – especially in Western New York, which Banko said has more fallen soldiers than 17 states.
“We pay an inordinate price in this community because of our patriotism,” Banko said. “This is the cost of that patriotism. When we served as soldiers, our duty was to fight. Our duty as veterans is to remember, and that’s just as sacred as our duty when we were on active duty.”
Banko honored Gold Star Mothers, who lost their sons in uniform, as they sat in front throughout the commemoration.
Betty Jackowiak wore a black-and-white photo of her son, Henry, on her heart. The Marine died in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 21.
“It would be great if he was here in person, but he’s not,” said the tearful Jackowiak, 90, of Angola. “But he’s here in spirit. I feel him. I feel warm inside.”
Toward the end of the service, a local singer began “God Bless America,” and the crowd joined in. As people, young and old, sang, mothers stood and held hands. Men took off their hats and placed their right hands on their hearts.
Thirty years ago, private donors funded the construction of the monument. It cost $75,000 and was the first tribute erected on the waterfront. Now, the waterfront has a “Walk of Heroes” with World War I, World War II and Korean War tributes.
“It makes me feel good, emotionally, that this is going to be here forever,” Sargis said. “Kids that later on in life, my grandkids, their kids, that’s gonna be here forever just like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument … this stands for that also.”