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Vietnam Veteran: Carl Nunziato MAG
Carl Nunziato overcame a terrible injury suffered in Vietnam to become a successful lawyer, businessman and community leader. He has made great strides asa supporter of disabled people's rights in Youngstown, Ohio.
What was it like growing up in Ohio?
Oh, it was very good. I grew up north of Youngstown in an area called Sleepy Hollow. In high school we learned a lot of values while growing up in a middle-income, diverse neighborhood.
What values and principles shaped your life?
Work was one. I started working when I was 13 and continued all the way through high school and college. I learned to take on responsibility, as well as honesty and that you have to make it on your own. Nobody gave us anything, so I had to do what was necessary. I had to assume responsibility, be smart and cut my own direction in life.
Why did you enter the Army?
When I was in college I thought it would be interesting to try the ROTC program. I wasn't sure if I was going to stay in the Army or not. I had a teaching degree, but I opted, for a while at least, to stay in.
When you enlisted, were you prepared for the possibility that you might go to Vietnam?
Not really. I went into the Army the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Nobody was called for that, so I never anticipated we would be in a war situation.
Recall the day you learned you had to go to Vietnam.
Well, the first time I went to Vietnam, I volunteered. I was stationed in Hawaii as a first lieutenant, and the war had been going on for about a year. I thought it was an opportunity to do something definitive. Communism was still a big issue then, and we were well trained, so I volunteered for my first tour of duty. It was a short tour, only six months, and I came back fine.
What was your role in the Vietnam War, and how did it affect you?
We were the only fighting force in Vietnam at that time, and spent our days flying machine gunners on the helicopters. At night we defended the perimeter of the air bases and some of the smaller camps. I was an intelligence officer and a defense commander. As the senior lieutenant, I was in charge of all nine platoons, even though they were in 14 or 15 cities throughout Vietnam. I was 24 years old and had nine lieutenants and about 300 men under me. That was a lot of responsibility, but I think my upbringing helped.
After my first tour, I returned to Hawaii. I was training a unit when the whole division got alerted. I was ordered back to Vietnam with my unit, the 25th Division. I was an artillery battery commander and captain, and directly supervised 200 men. We left Hawaii by ship, got to Vietnam, went into an area called Ku-Chi and dug in. We made our perimeter there and setup our artillery to assist the infantry. That was very tough, very demanding. We had little water or food. We each were lucky to have a gallon of water a day for drinking and washing, so as you can imagine, we didn't wash a whole lot. It was hard to get supplies, and it was a real tough three months until supply lines improved.
Describe the event during your second tour of duty that altered your life forever.
Well, after about six months, we went on Operation Adelborough. It was big; we used two brigades of the 25th Division and members of the First. Ten thousand men made a sweep from east of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border into War Zone C, which was heavily infiltrated with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars, who had been there for years. The sweep lasted 10 weeks, and I had the heavy artillery - the 155-millimeter Howitzers and the eight-inch Howitzers.
At the operation's conclusion, we had succeeded in pushing the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong out of the area. In the two or three days before it ended, my unit pulled back. We were around a small South Vietnamese Special Forces camp of about 200 Vietnamese soldiers. They had their families with them. We put out our Howitzers to protect them because we had agent information there might be an attack. We got into position at five in the evening and set up our guns and dug our foxholes. About ten that night, the Viet Cong attacked, and that's where I was wounded. I was running across the field to get to my armored personnel carrier because I had the radios and wirelines in there. It was pretty dark, and I figured that only with the radios would I be able to control the defense of our small encampment.
There was a lot of gunfire and mortars exploding, and as I was running across the field, one of the shells landed two feet from me. It blew off my left leg below the knee and injured my right leg and right arm. The medics came and put on a tourniquet. We had a doctor with us, he was in a foxhole 20 yards away, and he came out and put an intravenous in my arm. All the while, shells were exploding and gunfire continued. After 15 minutes it subsided. That's when they brought in a helicopter, and I went to a nearby field hospital. I was treated there and ended up spending 23 months in the hospital.
In what ways did your sudden disability change your life?
Well, the disability is extremely difficult. I had pain all the time, and still do to this day. I had to change my whole lifestyle. I was fitted with artificial limbs to walk, but that obviously eliminated all the things I loved. I had to get out of the Army, I couldn't play golf, I couldn't dance . . . I couldn't do any of the things I'd enjoyed before, so I made my mind up in the hospital that I was going to go on. I figured the best way was with education, so I studied while I was in the hospital and took the entrance exam for law school. When I left the hospital, I went right to law school, still walking with crutches and using the wheelchair. I went for three years, under rather adverse physical conditions.
After I graduated, I worked in the Cleveland court system and later took a job at a bank, where I worked for 28 years. The war was still on when I left school, but I was pretty removed from it. I didn't want to hear about it. I pretty much didn't want to get involved in it, and definitely did not like the war protesters, even though I think the war, by that time, had proven to be bad. The protesters kept venting their anger against the soldiers. The soldiers were the greatest victims of all because they were being shot and killed, and the ones who survived suffered a real tough life. I just pretty much kept very quiet about being in Vietnam and didn't take any position.
How did your injury affect your attitude? At any point during your recovery, did you ever feel sorry for yourself?
No, I don't allow that. I certainly have had periods of depression, but I never, never allow myself to feel sorry because that's the beginning of the end. I have a strong, positive attitude all the time, even when it hurts and even when it's tough. I just make the best of whatever I can. I could have come out of the hospital and sat in the wheelchair and not done anything.
Several people did nothing with their lives, but I knew I had to make the best of a bad situation. I accepted it and did everything I could to make it better. It certainly was not easy. There were a lot of days with a lot of pain and a lot of grief, but I just never allowed myself to give up.
If you had known you would become a double amputee, would you have returned to Vietnam?
No, of course not. When I went back, I assumed I would get through it. I worried about it, but I never dwelled on the possibility of getting killed. I went there and did my duty. The night of the attack, I could have just sat in my foxhole, let the bullets fly and stay as safe as could be. But that's not who I am, that's not the way I believe in functioning. I had responsibilities.
How did you take an active role in helping veterans and disabled people, and why did you feel this was necessary?
The first thing I discovered was there were no barrier-free buildings. You couldn't even get into the courthouse. There was total discrimination against people in wheelchairs. I and a couple of buddies, who were also disabled veterans, got together and started the Barrier- Free Architecture Committee. We worked for 15years to get the courthouse, hospitals and university barrier free. The university had steps all over the place.
Probably the next best thing Idid was chair the committee which brought the Veterans Hospital to Belmont Avenue, which took four years. I also served on other committees. My friends would do athletic things I couldn't do, so instead I did the things I could do. Working to help the disabled was my golf game, if you will. I got to know disabled people, and saw how important helping them was.
A friend who had a proceeding at the courthouse couldn't get in because of the steps. The fellow who was going to help him didn't show up, so my friend was not present when the trial was held. He didn't get justice, and I thought that was absolutely unacceptable. Equality for the elderly and disabled became one of my goals in life that I am still working on.
What advice would you give those who have obstacles in their lives?
Many people have a setback, and just roll over and kind of quit. It's an attitude thing. You have to make the best of whatever you're dealt in life. Just take a deep breath, count to ten and start over.