Memorial Day Done Right
By Bernard Edelman
A nation reveals itself
not only by the men it produces but also by the men it
honors, the men it remembers.
—President John F. Kennedy
It started out small. A fraternity of veterans
in Quincy, Massachusetts, most of them Marines, would gather
in late March to honor those who died in the Vietnam War.
years ago, they were blessed with a memorial: a clock tower
built by the O’Connell Development Company—Billy
O’Connell had served during
the Vietnam War—and Forge Development Corporation.
It rises some four stories at Marina Bay in the Squantum
section of Quincy. Inscribed on one of the four panels at
the base of the tower are the names of 47 local men who perished
But since 2005, this band of hardies is small
no more. The Vietnam Combat Veterans Combined Armed Forces
of Quincy (named after Col. John Quincy and the home and
final resting place of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy
Adams) has been joined by hundreds of fellow veterans, their
families, friends, supporters, and local elected officials
to pay tribute to comrades, friends, brothers, sisters, and
fathers lost to the war.
Among these fallen are Alan Brudno
and Charles Bifolchi.
CAPTAIN ALAN BRUDNO
Two years ago, Brudno’s name became the 48th on the
panel. It occupies the top space in the left column. It’s
almost as though the space were awaiting him, said his brother
Bob, whose persistence triumphed when Alan Brudno’s
name was added to The Wall in Washington on Memorial Day
The Quincy native had wanted to become an astronaut.
He joined the Air Force but was shot down over North Vietnam
October 18, 1965. He spent the next seven-and-a-half years
in captivity, mostly in the Hanoi Hilton. He endured torture
and solitary confinement. He was one of the longest-held
POWs in American history.
Alan Brudno came home in 1973, one
of 599 repatriated as part of the agreement crafted by Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger that led to America’s exit
But his war never ended.
“He just used up everything he had over those long
years in captivity,” a
military psychiatrist told his brother Bob many years later. “There
was no strength left with which to survive.”
was proud to be a U.S. Air Force officer,” said fellow
prisoner Orson Swindle, who’d spent two-and-a half
years in the cell next to Alan and exchanged messages by
tapping out code on the wall that separated them. “He
was deeply burdened by what we all endured. We came back
to a society that had changed dramatically.” It was
a society far different than the one Brudno left to go to
war. The America to which Brudno returned was alien to him.
Many of his countrymen no longer supported the war. Often,
veterans were not welcomed into the bosom of a grateful nation.
to live in this world, he took his life less than four months
into his freedom, on the day before his 33rd birthday. Some
said he had died in Vietnam, only to bleed out after he returned
When the Vietnam Combat Veterans Combined Armed
Forces of Quincy learned about Alan, one of their own who
had been so long overlooked, they decided to honor his memory
as well. Ed Murphy, who had retired as a colonel after “30
years, eight months, and 26 days” in the Marine Corps,
Larry Norton and Tom Bolinder, diehard Marines both, Joe
Brooker, one of the few Air Force veterans in the group,
and their comrades determined that their next gathering would
celebrate Alan Brudno’s life and commemorate his loss.
They invited Debby Brudno and Bob Brudno and his wife, Sheila,
to join them.
March 27 was miserable. It dawned raw and blustery
across New England. It remained unrelentingly nasty all day.
The sleet that drenched Quincy forced the cancellation of
a Missing Man flyover. The ceremony at the clock tower was
moved indoors, to the packed auditorium of North Quincy High
School, Brudno’s alma mater.
Among those gathered in
that ill-lit and leaky space were students and their teachers,
a bevy of elected officials, Gold Star mothers in their white
uniforms, and veterans from earlier wars, decked out in their
uniforms. For many of those present, a profound change had
occurred. Their city was ready to thank all who had served
in Southeast Asia, not just Alan Brudno.
It was a heartfelt
event, simple and sincere. Larry Norton served as the emcee.
Elected officials read proclamations and offered good wishes.
Bob Brudno spoke of his brother’s life and legacy.
David Jacobs, who had been the Brudno family’s rabbi
four decades earlier, offered warm recollections of Alan.
Orson Swindle recalled his fellow cellmate. For many in attendance,
it was a transcendent event, pure of motive, honest in intent.
Alan died,” Bob Brudno told those gathered in the auditorium, “many
other POWs revealed their demons, and treatment was extended
without the career-ending consequences that Alan feared.
Programs are in place today for POWs and their families that
will continue for the rest of their lives.”
It is veterans who do for themselves and in the process rehabilitate
their image and take pride in their identities. In Washington,
Jan Scruggs’s dream
became, after many fits and turns, The Wall. It is sacred
ground, a place of remembrance and reflection. Other memorials
acknowledging the service and sacrifice of the men and women
who served in Southeast Asia were conceived by veterans,
created and constructed in small towns and big cities throughout
paid for through the efforts of veterans.
As The Wall was
being built in 1980, Alan Brudno’s widow, Debby, approached
officials from the Air Force. Could her husband’s name
be inscribed on The Wall? she asked. No, they told her: He
did not die in Vietnam.
In 1998, Bob Brudno, a naval officer
during the war, began a journey that would change that. He
knew Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who invited him to a reception in
Washington. They met and had a brief conversation with Everett
Alvarez, who had spent more time in confinement than any
other American POW.
“He was one of us,” Alvarez
told Bob Brudno, which got him thinking: Did anyone think
otherwise of his brother? Even though Alan Brudno was posthumously
awarded two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze
Stars, and two Purple Hearts, among a multitude of medals,
could anyone believe that he had killed himself out of shame?
Brudno wrote an op-ed article for Newsweek. “Unfinished
his effort to tell his brother’s story—and how
all of those who had served in Vietnam were unfairly treated.
wasn’t until 2004, however, that Bob Brudno began a
campaign that ended when the Secretary of the Air Force and
the Secretary of Defense signed off on adding his brother’s
name to the others that grace the polished black granite
of The Wall.
HONORING ALAN BRUDNO
It was not an event, however, that Debby Brudno had looked
forward to. “I
had feared opening up this vast personal sadness with a group
of strangers,” she
said. “And we had no idea of the reception we were
going to get.”
Last year, the Quincy veterans were surprised
by the outpouring of caring. The veterans, though, didn’t
let go of their fallen flier. The city of Quincy dedicated “E.
Alan Brudno Square.” In ceremonies at the clock tower
memorial, the featured speaker was Joe Galloway, the journalist
and co-author of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young.
A-10 Warthogs from the Connecticut Air National Guard passed
overhead and executed the Missing Man maneuver to salute
the memory of Alan Brudno.
Last year, too, a serendipitous identification gave Quincy
veterans the next name to honor. The remains of Maj. Charles
Bifolchi were finally identified, 38 years after his F- 4
jet disappeared in mountainous terrain in South Vietnam.
In October, he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery
with full military honors. This year, the Quincy veterans
decided they would commemorate his life and loss.
March 29 dawned crisp and sparkling; it would be a brisk
day under a cerulean sky. The night before, the Quincy veterans
hosted a dinner for the Bifolchi and Brudno families and
special guests. In addition to Orson Swindle, these included
Navy veteran Joe McCain, like Bob Brudno a POW brother; Ned
Ramm, the instructor who taught Alan Brudno to fly; Al Cummings,
VVA Massachusetts State Council President and a member of
VVA’s Board of Directors; and former Marine pilots
Mike Fiorillo, Tom Papineau, and Ron Morosky.
In the morning, “Charles
Bifolchi Square” was dedicated. Following
a luncheon, a caravan of cars shepherded by a police motorcycle
escort wended its way to Marina Bay. More than 300 people
gathered for another brief and solemn ceremony.
Norton served as emcee. Minister J.C. Swanson, a one-time
U.S. Navy lieutenant, gave the invocation. Police officer
Donald Sautter sang “The
Star-Spangled Banner.” Quincy Mayor William Phelan
commended the Vietnam Combat Veterans Combined Armed Forces “for
annually conducting an incredibly powerful remembrance service.
the roll call of the 48 names is read,” the mayor said, “I
try and imagine what our lives would be like had they come
home. What would their families and future families have
been like had they returned?
“I wonder about the careers
that some of these men may have enjoyed as doctors, lawyers,
astronauts, salesmen, policemen, or firemen. I wonder what
the impact on our world would have been had these brave men
been allowed to transfer their courage and willingness to
sacrifice to other areas of our society.”
Their loss, Mayor Phelan said, “is a profound loss
for our society.”
A TRUE AMERICAN HERO
Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Lynch, a former F-4 pilot, called
Charlie Bifolchi “a
true American hero.”
His name is on The Wall in Washington—and
on the clock tower in Quincy— because
Maj. Bifolchi “went to Vietnam and didn’t come
home. He couldn’t
come home,” Gen. Lynch said. “Charlie was in
the back seat of an RF-4 that took off from Tan Son Nhut
Air Base near Saigon on the 8th of January, 1968, [on] an
armed reconnaissance mission over very unfriendly territory.
airplane crashed into the side of a mountain near Dak To,” the
general said, “close to the Laotian border. They found
ground wreckage the next morning, but enemy ground fire and
rough terrain made it impossible to look for any survivors.
“They tried. They tried hard for four days. But there was just no way to
get in. Because they couldn’t check on Charlie’s
status after the crash, he was declared MIA—one of
some 2,500 Americans listed as POW or MIA during that war.”
Lynch recounted Charlie Bifolchi’s life: An honors
graduate of Quincy High School in 1961. President of the
National Honor Society. Awarded the Grossman Prize for leadership,
scholastic achievement, and service. A top student at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in Rochester, New York.
a tough job as a back-seater in the F-4, Gen. Lynch said. “But
Charlie did his job and he did it well. We lost a future
Air Force leader when we lost him those 39 years ago.”
Brudno announced that $20,000 had been collected from the
Brudno family and friends for a scholarship in his brother’s
name for students at North Quincy High School. Veterans Dominic
Spada and Patrick Barnes read the names inscribed on the
clock tower. Steven Kring played “Taps.”
3:55 p.m., four F-15 jets from Otis Air Force Base streaked
across the sky. As they roared above the clock tower, one
peeled off in the traditional Missing Man maneuver.
“If one could find any good in the aftermath of my brother’s death,” Bob
Brudno said, “it was that his story seems to have inspired
people to recognize how poorly our returning soldiers from
Vietnam were treated.”
Now, “by honoring the fallen
so many years after their deaths, people are demonstrating
long-overdue respect for all Vietnam veterans, who never
got a real welcome home,” he said.
Retired Marine Col.
Ed Murphy, whose phone call to Bob Brudno in 2005 gave impetus
to the events of the past two years, explains it this way: “Guys
have reached a stage in life when it’s about ‘we,’ not ‘I’,” he
said. “Just to see the effects on the Bifolchi family,
and the Brudno family, for them to see that others care,” is
At dinner after the ceremony, Orson Swindle spoke
from the heart. “I’m
thrilled to be part of your family,” he said. “It’s
great that you do what you do. Because you are the heart
and soul of what America is all about.”
For Debby Brudno,
the day was bittersweet. “Coming back here,” she
said, “pulls me back to 1973. But it’s comforting
to know that so many still care.”
The Quincy veterans are already planning for next March,
when they will honor Tommy Chiminello, a dustoff pilot who
died when his chopper was shot down. Each year they want
to tell the story of one more of their 48.