By Maddy Vitale
Thy Nguyen Cavagnaro fled her war-torn country of Vietnam in 1975.
On Veterans Day, thousands of miles away from her homeland, she stood on the stage at the Ocean City Tabernacle to say how thankful she is to all of the veterans who fought so bravely for this country, but especially to the Vietnam veterans, who helped her and her family so long ago, all in the name of freedom.
“You helped keep communists away from us in Vietnam,” she told an audience at the Veterans Day ceremony. “Sadly, you weren’t given a heroes’ welcome.”
To show her deep gratitude toward the Vietnam vets, she created a memorial in her hometown of Barnegat Township, Ocean County, dedicated to them.
Her compelling story of escaping from the communists was one of the highlights of a poignant ceremony that was both somber and triumphant, one day after the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, which signaled the end of World War I.
“I am truly honored to be a part of this event,” Cavagnaro said.
She noted the significance of her Veterans Day outfit. It was a traditional Vietnamese dress, but with the colors of the American flag.
“I lost my country in 1975, but I gained an amazing one in its place and it is all owned to our vets,” she said.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian told the crowd that we should show our appreciation for veterans and all of those who serve in the military.
He thanked the vets for their continued bravery, when they did not know if they were ever coming home. He thanked those who gave their lives for the nation.
“I urge you all to thank your veterans. You really should, because no one has done as much for us as they have,” Gillian said.
The ceremony was filled with solemn reminders of those lost at war and how deep an impact veterans have had on the nation. It included the placing of a memorial wreath and prayer.
Songs were performed by Ocean City High School student and Junior Miss Ocean City Julia Mary Wilson. Ocean City High School teacher Amy Andersen’s American Sign Language students performed their interpretation while Wilson sang the Star Spangled Banner. Primary School kindergarten students also participated. They recited the Pledge of Allegiance while doing sign language.
Another touching part of the program was a video of students in Primary School teacher Carrie Merritt’s first grade class. In it, the children told the veterans how much they are appreciated.
Pride. Courage. Respect. Love. Those were some of the words spoken by the first grade students.
Ocean City Special Events Coordinator Michael Hartman, who presided over the ceremony, told the audience it’s the simple gestures, the kind ways in life that are important, to remind people how significant they truly are.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who just won the 2nd Congressional District Race and will take office in 2019, expressed his gratitude for the veterans.
“What is our responsibility?” Van Drew asked. “It is to ensure we do not have any hungry vets or vets who don’t have education or support to move forward.”
He added, “Our veterans have given everything.”
Several other state, local and county dignitaries also filled the rows at the Tabernacle.
Former U.S. Ambassador of Panama and Congressman Bill Hughes attended the ceremony. Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michele Gillian attended.
City Council members who attended the service included Bob Barr, Keith Hartzell, Antwan McClellan, Michael DeVlieger, Council President Peter Madden and Vice President Tony Wilson, as did several school officials including Schools Superintendent Kathleen Taylor, Primary School Principal Kathy Smith and others.
Cape May County Freeholders Jeffrey Pierson, Gerald Thornton, Leonard Desiderio and E. Marie Hayes and County Clerk County Clerk Rita Marie Fulginiti were among those in attendance. Some of them, such as Pierson, who is a retired Brigadier General, wore their military uniforms.
Thornton, who served in the military, carried a book owned by his grandfather, August J. Zuest, who fought in World War I. Thornton said they both served in the Army 45 years apart and they were very close. At the end of the ceremony he flipped through the pages of his grandfather’s book and showed some of his military mementos.
In an emotional tribute to veterans, Commander of the VFW Post 6650 Mike Morrissey read off the numbers of men who died on their first day of war in Vietnam, the last day and how many fathers and sons who died in the wars.
For Army veteran Morrissey, remembering his friends and fellow soldiers who died in the Vietnam war can be haunting.
“We are haunted until we pass away,” Morrissey said. “There are no noble wars, only noble warriors.”
“When your country called, it was your duty to respond. So, we went. We went and had the privilege to defend our families’ way of life,” he said. “As a Vietnam veteran, I consider it a great privilege to say I served my country.”
The ceremony was sponsored by the Ocean City VFW Post 6650 and the Ocean City American Legion Post 524.