It wasn’t easy for Duane Silvera to stay brave.
On the night of Feb. 23, 1991, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran and his comrades learned they would invade Iraq the following day. It was the beginning of the Gulf War ground offensive, a ground assault on Kuwait and Iraq after six weeks of bombing against Iraq and its armed forces. None of their family members – their wives, children or siblings – knew of these plans. It was a secret, Silvera said, to keep the Iraqis from discovering their plot. But there was not enough time to prepare him and his comrades for death.
“Tomorrow – and I’m not going to lie to you – some of us are going to die,” Silvera remembers his master sergeant telling him and his comrades. “Some of you are going to die.”
Silvera, 51, survived, and attended the 23rd Veterans Day Ceremony at Stony Brook University’s Sidney Gelber Auditorium on Wednesday, Nov. 8. But he is also part of a dwindling population of U.S. veterans. In 1980, 18 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, according to census data. In 2014, that number shrunk to 8 percent. Now, perhaps more than ever, it is important to tell their stories – to save their disappearing memories.
More than 165 people paid their respects at the annual ceremony. Nearly 80 of them were veterans, from a 77-year-old man donning a baseball cap embroidered with the words, “Vietnam Veteran,” to a gentleman sitting in a wheelchair, with a miniature American flag attached to its push handle.
The ceremony was organized by the Office of Veterans Affairs, an organization that helps veterans, service members and their dependents collect education benefits and transition to Stony Brook University. The university has close to 300 student veterans, said Christopher Joseph, vice president of the Veteran Student Organization, which is a club for student vets and anyone who want to raise awareness for veterans issues. University administrators plan to grant the organization an office in the renovated Student Union, set to open around 2019, said Matthew Whelan, vice president for Strategic Initiatives and interim vice president for Student Affairs, in his welcome speech.
One of the oldest veterans in the audience was Fred Swedish, 79, who said he joined the U.S. Navy when he was 17. Swedish was an aviation mechanic in a helicopter squadron. He tailed unidentified submarines from the clouds and traveled across the world.
“England, France, Spain, the Caribbean and of course, the United States,” he recalled. “When you’re 17, 18, 19 years old, it’s exciting.”
Gennaro Anthony Cavalier, 77, said he spent nearly six years as a weapons controller in the U.S. Air Force. He remembers fixing not only a damaged airplane during the Vietnam War, but also soothing its pilot’s nerves. “He went from a soprano down to a normal voice,” Cavalier remembered. “We got him hooked up with a tanker and got him home safely.”
One of the younger veterans at the ceremony was 27-year-old Marquis Cunningham – a former U.S. army medic, veteran representative from the Office of Veteran Affairs and the student speaker at the ceremony. Cunningham recalled a sweltering, 99 degree Fahrenheit day in Fort Polk, Louisiana. That afternoon, soldiers began dropping like flies. They were, after all, dressed in full gear, including body armor and heavy weapons. Cunningham patched them up and dozens of others, including soldiers who downed too much beer over the weekend and brawled with one another. His experiences as a military medic led to him to the post-baccalaureate pre-health program at Stony Brook, he said.
Veterans Day, observed annually on Nov. 11, is a national holiday dedicated to those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. For many of today’s living veterans, with this dedication comes a continuing struggle with survivor’s guilt.
“We’d be sitting with these guys – and we were only in our middle 20s – all lean, mean fighting machines. Indestructible, so to speak,” Cavalier said. More than a dozen of his friends were killed. “Then by lunch, he’s dead. And you have to deal with that.”
Today, Silvera remembers his roommate, Robert Mazzocco, who died in 2013. They were roommates and non-commissioned officers during the Gulf War – an international conflict sparked by Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. After cleaning their barracks on Thursday nights, he said, they’d hop in Mazzocco’s 1966 Mustang Fastback and drive into downtown California. One week, Silvera paid for their pizza and drinks. The next week was always Mazzocco’s turn.
“This guy, who’s from Philadelphia – a white guy – and a black guy. I was born in Jamaica, came here an immigrant. Never really interacted too much with anyone other than my color,” Silvera said. “But the two of us were like brothers.”
A week ago, keynote speaker Osbert Orduña buried his father, Alirio, with full military honors in Calverton National Cemetery located in eastern Long Island. Both father and son spent years in the Marines. They abided by the three key Marine Corps core values throughout their lives, like all veterans, Orduña said in his speech – honor, courage and commitment.
But veterans were not always honored, particularly Vietnam War veterans. Instead, some, including Cavalier, were denounced as “baby killers.”
“When I see another Vietnam vet, I always say, ‘Welcome home’ because we did not get that welcome home when we were coming back from Southeast Asia,” Cavalier said. “When you go into the military, you sign a blank check to the U.S. and to the citizens that you will risk your life if need be to protect their rights. And sometimes, it gets disconcerting and discouraging when they’re using the rights that you try to protect for them to express outrageous indignities to you.”
The Vietnam War remains one of America’s most controversial and divisive events in the country’s history. The war that began to stop the spread of communism into Southeast Asia triggered one of the U.S.’s biggest anti-war movements and sparked widespread outrage across the nation. After more than a decade of ever-rising casualties and costs, many Americans were sick and tired. And the government, Cavalier said, didn’t have “an idea in hell of what was going on.”
“Those battle plans were not formulated by the commanders of the field – in the air force, I’m talking about – but in D.C., where some guys are couch potatoes,” he said. “Making such idiotic – let’s say, not well-thought out – attacks.”
By 2043, most of the veterans from the Vietnam era and earlier will have died, according to projections from the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Gulf War-era veterans, like Silvera, will probably make up the majority of all veterans. And then, a centennial later, the Gulf War veterans and their legacy will also fade into history’s tapestry.
“The real heroes are the guys who didn’t make it back – and the wives,” Cavalier said. “Life is precious, fragile, and… just worthwhile.”