BARNEGAT, N.J. — Nearly three years ago, Thy Cavagnaro set off on a mission: find every Vietnam War veteran in Barnegat and thank him for his service.
Without them, she says she would not have survived. Cavagnaro’s family fled Saigon on April 30, 1975 — hours before the Communist forces captured the South Vietnamese capital — and took refuge in the United States. She was a little over 1 year old at the time.
Cavagnaro, now 44, of Barnegat, gave thanks to hundreds of Vietnam veterans last Thursday, unveiling what may be the country’s first Vietnam veterans monument created by a Vietnamese refugee.
“You helped keep Communists away from our neighborhoods in Vietnam,” she told hundreds of veterans and supporters at Gazebo Park in Barnegat, “and you made sure we had safe passage to your own country when we lost ours.”
Wearing a long yellow and red dress, designed like the South Vietnamese flag, Cavagnaro lifted the white cover and revealed a 21-by-28-inch black plaque, which she and her husband James purchased. In large white letters, the monument says “welcome home.”
The historic monument came as the country observes the first National Vietnam War Veterans Day. U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., state Sen. Christopher Connors, R-Ocean, Exercise Tiger Association Director Susan Haines and other dignitaries from across the country attended, joining hundreds of veterans at the park.
Singer Ron Brooks, the first double amputee Eagle Scout, performed the national anthem. Former Navy SEAL and pundit Jonathan T. Gilliam delivered the keynote speech.
Cavagnaro said she hopes the monument inspires others to launch projects in their own towns to honor veterans who served in Vietnam.
Ocean County is home to 42,494 veterans, more than any other county in New Jersey, according to census figures. The Barnegat American Legion alone has 768 veterans, including many who served in Vietnam, says commander Gene O’Grady.
For those veterans, the ceremony means getting recognized decades after returning to a country that didn’t welcome them.
“When we came home, we did not get any of that, no parades, no welcomes,” says Army veteran Rick Amsterdam, a Barnegat resident who served from 1969 to 1972. “I stepped off the train. I didn’t even get home yet to see my mother, I was in a fistfight in the middle of a road.”
Cavagnaro wanted to change that. She pitched the monument and a series of “Thank You” dinners to the American Legion board members, in hopes of getting their blessing.
At the dedication ceremony, Frank Healey recalled the attacks he and fellow veterans faced after the war when they wore their uniform in public.
“We had gone like our older brothers, who went to Korea. We had gone like our fathers, who went to World War II,” said Healey, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10092 who served from 1967 to 1968, “but we didn’t come home. We came back.”
Then he turned to Thy and James Cavagnaro.
“Thank you for this day,” he said. “This is home. This is home.”
Cavagnaro has no memory of Vietnam, but she grew up hearing her family’s stories of their harrowing escape.
Her uncle, captain of a Vietnamese naval minesweeper, could only fit 104 people on his ship. Initially, they considered leaving behind family members on her mom’s side.
“She had a family of 12, she could only take two people,” Cavagnaro said. “She had to have her father decide, to choose who would live and whoever would die.”
They changed their minds when they heard the city was being captured. His ship left with an estimated 998 people and a dog on board — hours before the U.S.-backed regime announced its surrender to the North Vietnamese forces.
“We literally escaped by the skin of our teeth,” she said.
Tens of thousands packed boats fleeing the Communist forces and died out at sea.
The ship Cavagnaro’s family boarded broke down along the way, but it was towed across the South China Sea to U.S. forces in the Philippines.
Cavagnaro’s family was sent to a refugee camp in Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where they started their new lives.
Cavagnaro says she grew up hearing about her family’s escape story, but she didn’t delve deep until the anniversary of the war four decades later.
She and her husband, James, started exploring the history of the Vietnam War and learned about the struggles veterans faced.
Cavagnaro embarked on a personal mission. Whenever she saw a Vietnam War veteran, she would walk up and thank him for his service.
Cavagnaro honked the horn at motorists with Vietnam War bumper stickers, holding up a sign that says “welcome home.” She often pulled over when she saw veterans with Vietnam War caps and hugged them. She expressed her gratitude on her Facebook page.
The point, she said was, “to help them see that not everybody felt that way, that people like me — a Vietnamese refugee, people that they were trying to help — felt differently and were really appreciative.”
Cavagnaro started planning the memorial in 2017. Once she got approval from the township and local veterans groups, she and her husband purchased the stone and made arrangements to place it in Gazebo Park at the base of the flagpole.
Meanwhile, the Cavagnaros pursued a more intimate approach of connecting with veterans. They organized dinners for small groups of Vietnam War veterans, first at Backward Flag Brewing in Lacey and then at the American Legion.
“A lot of these guys never got the proper welcome home. Really, a lot of them never got the recognition that they deserved,” said O’Grady, the local American Legion commander. “To me, that was a no brainer to be able to have Thy meet the Vietnam veterans from our town in our post.”
About 20 veterans and their families were invited each time. Men who for years kept quiet about Vietnam swapped war stories with fellow soldiers and Cavagnaro as she shared her family’s story of coming to the United States.
“We told them, ‘Because of you, people like me and my family were able to start over,’” she recalled. “We were able to survive, first of all, and then start over in this amazing country of yours. . That’s when it clicked.”
Amsterdam, the Army veteran, reminisced with Cavagnaro’s father about Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain near the Cambodian border. Amsterdam was a radio messenger for a nearby artillery and infantry unit.
Tony Kopke, a Coast Guard veteran from Barnegat, shared stories of the Coast Guard’s role with Cavagnaro. He brought maps, posters and brochures about the Coast Guard to the Barnegat American Legion after the dedication ceremony.
“Most people don’t even know the Coast Guard was there,” Kopke said. “The Coast Guard probably helped save many, many lives by intercepting all those guns and ammunition and supplies that came from sea from North Vietnamese.”
They cleared their schedules to attend the dedication ceremony and meet fellow Vietnam veterans. Hundreds flocked to the park and then to the Barnegat American Legion for food. There Amsterdam met with veterans from across the region.
Among them was Ngo Quyen, who served as a lieutenant for the Republic of Vietnam. He served in the war on the South Vietnamese side from 1968 to 1975.
“Today, it’s their day,” he said of the U.S. veterans. “New day, new way. They should be proud when they have their Vietnam War cap.”
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com