BARNEGAT – Thy Cavagnaro wanted this year’s National Vietnam Veterans Day to be about more than just remembering the past, but also about sharing that history with today’s youth.
The second annual Barnegat Vietnam Veterans Memorial Ceremony was held at Gazebo Park on March 29. Barnegat locals Thy and Jimmy Cavagnaro established it in 2018. Although the turnout was a bit less this year, the emotional presence was perhaps even more.
Thy is a Vietnam refugee that arrived in the US with her family in 1975 on a South Vietnamese naval minesweeper. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, both the event and the monument placed in Gazebo Park, are Thy’s way of perpetually thanking those veterans whose heroic actions gave her family freedom and opportunity here in the U.S.
“You helped keep the communists away from our home in Vietnam, and you made sure we had a safe passage to your own country after we lost ours,” said Thy, addressing the veterans in attendance with tearful thanks.
Although Thy was only a year and a half at the time her family was rescued from Vietnam, she gets emotional at the memory of what her family endured.
“I have to hold tears back when I talk about how my mom had to have her dad choose 2 people out of the 10 members of our family who would accompany us…it would assure the safety of those two, but was essentially a death sentence for the rest,” she explained. “I realize the terror, the anguish, and the despair they must have felt.”
The purpose of the annual event is to welcome home those Vietnam veterans that were received back to the U.S. with hate and hostility after the war. Since its inception last year, Barnegat’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has spurred action in many other towns and states.
“After last year’s event, we were contacted by two Vietnamese brothers from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who were so taken by what we had done they asked for permission to use the same monument design we have created,” said Thy.
The theme of thanking veterans was also picked up in Ocean City, New Jersey, where Thy found the perfect symbol of both the veteran appreciation movement and youthfulness: Julia Wilson. Wilson performed a stunning rendition of the national anthem at Ocean City’s event and Thy asked her to perform at Barnegat’s second annual event as well.
“In order for this event to continue successfully, I had to get children and younger generations involved, otherwise traditions will fade as older generations are lost,” Thy said.
Keeping with this theme, the keynote speaker was Logan Germano, a junior at Barnegat High School and the grandson of two Vietnam veterans.
“As a grandson speaking to you all today, I am grateful and beyond honored to be here on behalf of my grandfathers,” said Germano. “Both of my grandfathers suffered the pain to fight for their country…they have been an inspiration to me and I have learned a lot from them.”
The musical guest was Vietnamese singer/songwriter Steve Hartman, whose life as a baby was saved by Vietnam veterans through Operation Babylift. Operation Babylift was a plan hatched by the U.S. government during the war to rescue thousands of displaced Vietnamese children and bring them to the U.S.
The event also featured the Barnegat American Legion, Barnegat High School Navy JROTC, and Barnegat Veterans of Foreign Wars Color Guards. The pledge of allegiance was led by Boy Scouts Troop 26 of Barnegat.
Not only was this year about passing the history onto the youth, but it was also about spreading the movement of thanking Vietnam veterans far and wide.
“I would love to see our event get smaller every year because more and more towns are following Barnegat’s lead and are hosting ceremonies for their own Vietnam vets,” Thy said. “If every town does this, then veterans will always be welcomed home everywhere they go.”
Barnegat VFW Commander Frank Healy provided an emotional retelling of what it was like to come back home after being deployed overseas and not be “welcomed home.” Commander Healy served in the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, an infantry battalion that was known as “The Walking Dead” for suffering the highest killed in action rate in Marine Corps history.
In February of 1967, Healy arrived in Vietnam. “Over there we didn’t hear anything about what was happening in the states,” he said.
When he arrived back in the U.S. in March of 1968, he found himself in a country he didn’t even recognize.
“I came back to a country that I was bitter with…I came back to a country that eventually made me hate,” said Healy.
It wasn’t until March 29, 2018 at the first ever Barnegat Vietnam Veterans Memorial Ceremony, that Commander Healy finally felt welcomed home.
“It’s time that we live with ourselves at peace…God Bless You, God Bless America, and thank you for your service,” Healy finished.
Thy and Jimmy thanked the following veterans in attendance: American Legion, Coast Guard Combat Veterans Association, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans, Korean American Vietnam War Veterans, Marine Corps League, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Polish Legion of American Veterans, members of Rolling Thunder, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Vietnam Veterans of America.
“This day is all about you…You deserve our deepest gratitude and respect,” said Thy.