BARNEGAT – A blustery wind caught Thy Cavagnaro’s long dark hair as she led the opening ceremonies for a remembrance day that she herself masterminded in downtown Barnegat.
Thy, who wore a long Vietnamese traditional dress, attempted to hide her shivers. Everyone around her was bundled up to ward off the frigid temperatures.
Although she doesn’t remember it, Thy admitted this wasn’t the first time her clothing wasn’t warm enough for the outside weather.
Thy and her family left scorching high temperatures in their native Vietnam to ultimately become refugees in what Thy calls the great United States. A year old at the time, Thy said her parents relied on the kindness of others to donate clothes and shoes.
Across the United States, March 29th has been designated as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. In 2018, Thy and her husband Jimmy Cavagnaro decided to bring local attention to honoring Vietnam veterans. They started by dedicating a special monument that sits facing the roadway in Gazebo Park – engraved with the words “Welcome Home” to Vietnam veterans.
Thy said she’ll never stop thanking the American soldiers who made it possible for them to escape a communist regime. Her “Thanking Vietnam Veterans in Barnegat” celebration has caught the attention of thousands – and earned special recognition from the United States Congress.
“My family and I came to the United States as political refugees in 1975,” said Thy. “We escaped the fall of Saigon by the skin of our teeth. We stand here today as proud Americans through the concerted efforts of so many people.”
Thy’s parents were in the audience as their daughter thanked multitudes of American people for their place in the country they honor and respect. She spoke of volunteers who helped when the family arrived, as well as the people who sponsored them.
Looking out into a sea of faces etched with wartime memories, Thy offered her overwhelming gratitude to the Vietnam veterans gathered before her.
“You fought the communists in our neighborhoods in Vietnam when you were barely adults,” Thy shared. “You made sure we had a safe passage to your own country after we lost ours.”
The impetus for Thy’s mission to thank every Vietnam veteran she can, comes with an unfortunate backstory.
Thy acknowledged that many of the Vietnam veterans who returned to the states themselves were treated poorly. She said they were ostracized by society because of incorrect propaganda – despite answering their call of duty.
“I was proudly thanking Vietnam veterans for their service on Facebook, when a Vietnam veteran who I didn’t know came back at me,” Thy shared. “He told me he was sorry he didn’t kill all of my ancestors first.”
Rather than take the disturbing attack personally, Thy realized there were many Vietnam veterans still hurting from the indescribable trials they faced. She decided to turn what was negative into a positive.
As it was in prior years, Barnegat’s 2022 National Vietnam War Veterans Day was packed with moving speeches and events. Jim Mackey, Chief Warrant Officer led the Barnegat High School Navy JROTC Color Guard.
After Reverend Glenn Swank led the community in prayer, Charlie Rollman, a Barnegat boy scout and winner of the 2019 Young Citizens Award began the Pledge of Allegiance. One couldn’t help but get teary watching all the veterans salute the flag they protected.
Unfortunately, Barnegat’s Brackman Middle School Chorus was not able to appear in person to perform the National Anthem. Some chose to salute, while others placed their hats or hands over their hearts when the chorus recording came over the loudspeaker.
The veterans themselves wore their badges of honor with dignity. Whether their garb consisted of black leather motorcycle jackets with patches or formal dress uniforms, they’d all served their nation as one.
The Barnegat High School Marching Band, led by Dan McGrath, Marching Band Director played an Armed Forces Medley, which prompted members of each branch of service to stand.
Before Thy called a man named Steve Hartmann up to the stage to perform a song, she told a bit of his story.
“Operation Baby Lift was the name given to the mass evacuation of thousands of children from South Vietnam via various types of planes to ultimately be adopted by families around the world,” Thy explained. “The first flight, unfortunately, was a tragic one, because a malfunction caused it to crash shortly after takeoff.”
“Nearly 100 babies died on that flight,” continued Thy. “Through a twist of fate, one of those babies who was supposed to be on that flight was misplaced and put on a different one.”
According to Thy, that baby was Hartman, who ultimately made it to the United States and was adopted by a family in Philadelphia. His song dedicated to the men and women of Operation Babylift held special significance when Hartman sang it this year in Barnegat.
For the first time, Hartman had the opportunity to meet one of the veterans involved in Operation Baby Lift. When Master Sergeant Rene Fougeray came to the stage, Hartman was overcome with emotion.
In addition to thanking veterans, Thy has visited Barnegat Schools to tell the story of how Americans helped her escape communism. However, even before he heard Thy speak, a fourth grader at the Donahue School wanted her to know how important he thought it was to honor Vietnam vets.
Thy said she was confused when a family called and asked if she planned to hold the special commemoration service as she’d done in the past. Nine-year-old Vincent J. Lorenzo said he didn’t want to go on vacation if it would interfere with him being there. Thy was so impressed that she invited the young man to be the keynote speaker.
“My grandfather James Beninato served in the Vietnam War over 50 years ago as part of the First Infantry in the United States Army,” began Vincent. “He served four years after being drafted and was deployed.”
Vincent said he never had the opportunity to meet his grandfather but was extremely proud to have one of his grandfather’s three purple hearts with him at the event.
“Some people think heroes wear capes and fly through the sky to save the day,” Vincent shared. “But I believe a hero is someone special that risks their lives for others. They help to keep our country safe and protect others from harm. A hero is someone brave that is willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”
The young man with a heart beyond his years spoke directly to the Vietnam veterans and expressed his gratitude for their service. There was no wonder he received thunderous applause when he ended his speech.
At the conclusion of the poignant celebration, Thy and Jimmy walked over to place a wreath on the monument the two shared with the community.
Barnegat Marching Band Director Dan McGrath changed roles to that of the “Taps” bugler, evoking emotions and memories of times and people not meant to be forgotten.