11/11/07 — A veteran remembers

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A veteran remembers

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 11, 2007 2:18 AM

Don't thank Joe D'Eufemia.

The gunner would rather you honor his best friend, Tony, and the 58,000 others who never made it home.

Don't ask about those tree-top extractions in the jungle -- at least not unless you are ready to hear about the day the young Marine slapped one of his comrades back to life.

For D'Eufemia, each day since he left Vietnam has been a struggle.

"Every combat veteran is going to tell you, they are going to feel guilty," he said. "Why did I come back and those other guys never made it home? Why did I live when they died?"

But he admits he tries to make sense of it all, to honor those who have fallen by living the life they dreamed about returning home to -- but never did.

He doesn't need a particular day to remember the first time his helicopter took fire.

It doesn't take a parade or a float to conjure up the memory of the enemy soldier he was "just a little bit quicker" than.

The 60-year-old relives those moments every day.

"You don't get past that," he said. "That's why when they talked about the kids when they came home they said, 'They've changed. They look different, act different. It's called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

A younger D'Eufemia just wanted to make something of himself, to find a way out of his small New York hometown.

"It was a challenge for me," he said. "I needed something. I needed to get off the street."

But he never imagined that four years in the Marines would stick with him forever.

"I joined the Marines because I liked the uniform," D'Eufemia said. "I was just a young kid trying to really do something, you know?"

Basic Training at Paris Island gave him a taste of the physical and mental pounding a troop might face at war.

And on April 13, 1967, he left for Vietnam.

Still, it took him several months to accept the gravity of the situation he was in.

"Mortar hit my camp the first night (in Vietnam)," D'Eufemia said. "But the shock didn't really hit me yet that hey, I'm in real war."

He was just the kid behind a gun, loving the thrill of manning it aboard a constantly flying CH-46 helicopter.

"I flew every day for about 11 months," he said. "I couldn't get enough of it. Here I was, this young kid, and I wanted to prove something."

But D'Eufemia will tell you that a mission gone wrong can change everything.

His 14-man crew was on a tree-top extraction when an enemy soldier fired a rocket launcher at the chopper.

"That was bad day. We spun all the way down. Only four of us made it out alive," he said. "It's a helpless environment, and when you're at war, there is no closure to anything in life. So you carry that. I carry it to this day."

The fun goes away when you watch a friend die on foreign soil, he said.

And as for the thrill, it is often clouded by images of the first time you take a life.

"We were right on top of the tree level, extracting the dead and wounded, and the enemy was right on top of the Marines," D'Eufemia said. "We're pulling them up ... I looked down and saw the enemy. Our eyes met. He was pointing a rifle at me but I was just a little bit faster.

"That night I was a mess. I wondered about him," he added. "I'll never forget that experience. I still see his face to this day."

That is the reality for many combat veterans, D'Eufemia said -- daily reminders of friends wounded and lost, images of rocket and mortar fire overhead that surface when eyes are closed.

An American flag greets visitors as the pull up the D'Eufemia's driveway on the outskirts of Wayne County.

But it "means something more" to men and women who nearly died to defend it.

A wood and glass case full of medals, ribbons and decorations is mounted next to a desk inside the house.

But D'Eufemia would gladly give back his Purple Heart if it meant Tony had lived -- if it would get his friend's name off that Vietnam Wall.

Knowing he cannot, he copes with his experiences over a cup of coffee or meal with other local veterans.

"They pick me up," he said. "It's hard to talk to somebody about your combat experiences unless it's another vet. People who weren't there just don't understand it."

And he lives his life in honor of the fallen -- still carrying the guilt that comes with making it home from the jungle, but trying to turn it into something positive.

"I went to counseling and talked to the psychologist about Tony," D'Eufemia said. "He said, 'Do you really think that Tony would be happy right now knowing you're miserable? He died for you to have a happier life."

He stops for a minute and looks down.

"I looked at it in a different way after he said that," he added. "I cherish it now. I say 'thank you' to Tony and those other guys because I'm here and they're not. Those guys, they wouldn't want me to be miserable -- knowing that they died for something they believed in."

So if you see D'Eufemia at Goldsboro's Veterans Day Parade Monday, just remember how hard it is for him sometimes to accept the praise and the cheers for a life of service.

In his mind, the real heroes are those you won't see there -- ones who never made it home.