His somber, too-youthful face stares out from the photo taken more than 40 years ago. He’s in his Army dress uniform and a long trenchcoat, hat perched perfectly on his head, holding a copy of the Daily News.
The picture was snapped in January 1970 by his father, right before he shipped out for Vietnam.
He is Peter Wiesneifski, frozen in time at 19 years old.
He turned 20 in Tay Ninh province, in the south of South Vietnam, on Feb. 1, 1970, and 25 days later he was killed in combat.
“I knew him. We played ball together, basketball and softball on local teams,” said Al Farago, 63, who now lives upstate.
Farago and his best friend, Robert Taranto, were drafted together. Taranto was killed in 1968, and Farago was wounded and sent home in 1969.
Two years later, he said, “I was trying to put Vietnam behind me, and then someone told me Peter got killed, too,” he said.
For the next 40 years, he still “tried to put it away, like it never happened,” Farago said. Memories of the brutal war and ill treatment of the soldiers when they returned home haunted him.
This past Memorial Day, Farago’s cousin, retired cop Nick DiBrino, asked him to come to a service at the war monument in Van Nest Park, a triangle at White Plains Road, Unionport Road and Mead St.
The granite tower was erected by the Van Nest Citizens’ Patriotic League in 1926 to honor young men from the neighborhood who gave their lives for their country in the war to end all wars. Tributes to fallen soldiers of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars were added over the years.
Farago saw Taranto’s name carved on the Vietnam wall, but he didn’t see Wiesneifski’s.
“I told Nick and Richard Vitacco, who maintains the monument, that a buddy of mine died in Vietnam,” he said, “and why wasn’t his name on the wall?”
So Farago worked all summer to get the military records necessary to prove Wiesneifski was killed in the war and track down Wiesneifski’s older sister, Kathleen, to get more information and tell her what they were doing.
“She couldn’t thank me enough,” Farago said. “She was happy someone remembered her brother and was trying to correct an oversight.”
She sent him the photo of her brother, and, “It gave me chills,” Farago said. “He was so young.”
Farago forwarded the information to Vitacco, who keeps the monument site immaculately clean. A small, new American flag graced the foot of the monument last week.
Vitacco sent the information and a letter to the Parks Department, asking it to add Wiesneifski’s name because “Peter was a true son and brother of the Van Nest community.”
Farago told his story last week, as President Obama announced we had “met our responsibility” in Iraq and the war was ending. The veteran of another war that divided the country said he was glad today’s troops had the support of the American people, no matter that the war was unpopular.
The year that Wiesneifski was killed is part of an “often neglected and the most misunderstood portion of the war,” Randy K. Mills wrote in “Troubled Hero.”
“For many of those who served after 1969, the war was even more atrocious, given that American soldiers had to now fight with the knowledge that the war was, for all practical purposes, over,” he wrote.
Tay Ninh province was a meatgrinder for the troops of Wiesneifski’s 25th Infantry Division. A day after he died, six soldiers were killed at the 25th’s base in a mortar attack.
More than 6,100 U.S. servicemen died in Vietnam in 1970, equalling 11% of all U.S. fatalities during the war.
More Americans died in Vietnam in 1970 than in the entire Iraq War.
“This helps me a bit. Seeing that something is being done makes me feel good,” said Farago. “Hopefully, we’ll get Peter’s name on the memorial.
“I felt inside me it was just something I had to do. It was someone I knew, an average guy, a nice guy, a regular neighborhood guy who just got unlucky.”
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