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home : features : people of faith

11/9/2017 9:00:00 AM
VETERANS' DAY
Two Catholics recall how Vietnam War impacted their lives
JERRY WAINMAN AND STEPHANIE PETRONE at the museum. (M. Breig photo)
JERRY WAINMAN AND STEPHANIE PETRONE at the museum. (M. Breig photo)
BY JAMES BREIG
CORRESPONDENT

The New York Historical Society Museum in New York City recently opened an exhibit titled "The Vietnam War: 1945-1975." While it contains more than 300 artifacts, two of the first items visitors see are an old guitar and a battered duffel bag, the possessions of the late Gary Petrone of East Greenbush.

Among those on hand for the opening were his widow, Stephanie, and his best friend, Jerry Wainman, another Vietnam vet. The two are cousins.

Parishioners of St. Mary's Church in Clinton Heights and St. John/St. Joseph in Rensselaer respectively, they shared with The Evangelist the role religion played in their lives during and after the war.

As a teenager, Mr. Wainman volunteered for the Army, signing up for a four-year hitch. A mechanic who was sent to Vietnam in 1967, he defined his duties as putting "cracked-up planes back together" in a remote valley.

In Asia
As he did, U.S. troops focused on the surrounding hills, which were teeming with enemy soldiers. "They would come down at night, and the Army would push them back in the daylight," he recalled.

Among the sergeants heading those units was Mr. Petrone, reuniting two friends from New York. Mr. Wainman told The Evangelist about a particularly tense moment. "There was barbed wire around the air base," he said. "Flares were ready to go off if someone crossed the wires. One night, six of them went off at once. We didn't know which way to run. We didn't know where the enemy was."

The Army eventually repulsed the attackers, but not without casualties. When the mechanic, who was accustomed to seeing only planes and tools, awoke the next morning, he saw "body bags lying on the ground."

Assessing his wartime experiences, Mr. Wainman said, "I made good friends over there; that would be the brightest spot. It did open my eyes to ask why we were there and made me more interested in how political decisions are made." But, he added, "it didn't do me any good."

God amid war
What was good, however, was his relationship with God, which deepened while he was in Vietnam.

"I never lost faith in Him," he said. "There were times when I asked why some things happened, but I was more grateful than anything else. I got to where I could talk to God more. I don't feel embarrassed about praying or talking to Him person-to-person."

When he returned from Vietnam, Mr. Wainman said that he endured "a couple years of nightmares. But they stopped."

However, he knew that his friend, Mr. Petrone, suffered much longer.

"He did some very scary stuff" as a sergeant who led troops into harm's way, Mr. Wainman said. "I went to work every morning, loaded planes and sent them off." But Mr. Petrone's job was "something else."

One example was when Mr. Petrone took his men to set landmines and ambush the enemy. When their transport developed problems, they returned to their base camp. But he insisted that they complete their mission. As a result, "one of his men got shot in the face," Mr. Wainman said. "He didn't die, but Gary felt guilty" for the rest of his life.

Love at first sight
Mrs. Petrone would experience the result of that long-lasting guilt.

She first met Gary in a Rensselaer pub, and "it was instant love" for both, she said. But before they could marry, she took part in another ceremony: seeing the 19-year-old off to war. A 30-day voyage aboard the General Nelson M. Walker took him and thousands of other soldiers across the Pacific to Vietnam.

With nothing better to do, the troops scribbled their names and thoughts on their cramped canvas bunks, stacked one atop another. Those autographs and sayings, rediscovered 20 years ago by a researcher, are part of the museum's exhibition.

One of the cots bears Mr. Petrone's signature, but his guitar was even stronger evidence of his presence in Vietnam. He played it throughout the war but put it away when he returned home.

"I don't know why he did that," his wife said, speculating that it was his way of saying, "The war is over." But it wasn't. She recalled his "dealing with emotional and physical problems" for half a century after returning from Vietnam.

The Petrones married within a few weeks of his return from Vietnam. But Mr. Petrone could not put his experiences in Vietnam behind him.

Nightmares
"He had terrible nightmares for 50 years," Mrs. Petrone said. His dreams were so vivid that she wouldn't approach him when he was asleep out of fear he would strike out because he thought he was back in Vietnam.

In addition, he developed multiple medical problems, ranging from jungle rot on his feet and arms to recurring health issues related to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical sprayed from airplanes to defoliate trees concealing enemy troops.

Over the decades, Mr. Petrone endured several surgeries that attempted to correct his problems, including skin cancer. When he died in 2015, a physician identified the cause of death with one word: "Vietnam."

Faith's role
Despite his struggles, Mr. Petrone maintained his job and pitched in with CYO basketball and Catholic parish events, even though he was a Methodist.

"He went with me to church a lot," his wife said, "and he supported our kids in their faith. He loved the nuns in the school [Holy Spirit, East Greenbush]. I asked him once why he didn't convert. He said, 'I don't need to. I support the parish we belong to.'"

Throughout his years of suffering, Mrs. Petrone had people who sustained her. She listed "my children, my family, and Father [David] LeFort and the parishioners at St. Mary's who supported me and Gary for many years."

As for her faith throughout her husband's difficulties, she said, "It sustained me. The Lord was with me, helping me and guiding me."



Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, November 10, 2017
Article comment by: Stephanie Petrone

Thank you



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