Vincent Spanicciati wouldn’t change a thing.
The Beach Haven West resident enrolled in the Marines when he was 17. He earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. Spanicciati lives with the toll of his service every day.
He’s a disabled veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, wounds and diabetes caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Yet if given the chance to go back in time, he wouldn’t hesitate to enroll again.
“My country honored me by allowing me to serve in the United States Marine Corps,” he said. “It’s an honor I’ll take to my grave.”
Spanicciati, 70, grew up in Hamilton Township outside of Trenton and in Yardley, Pennsylvania. He served in the Marines from 1966-69.
“My country was at war,” he said. “I wanted to be where the action was and be with the best, so I went in the Marines.”
He went to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California for jungle warfare training and then found himself in Vietnam in March 1967.
Spanicciati was with the 1st Division, 1st Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment.
“The triple one,” he said. “It was the first of the first, the best of the best.”
The temperature was 117 degrees when Spanicciati first stepped foot in Da Nang, a coastal Vietnam city. Spanicciati’s unit was based 18 miles south of Da Nang.
He was involved in operations in the jungle on a daily basis. Spanicciati said being in Vietnam was not only a visual but also a sensory experience.
The jungle sounds and the Vietnam rice paddies were an overwhelming experience for a New Jersey teenager.
“The smell,” he said. “The sounds. Vietnam smelled like no place in the world I’ve ever been.”
Spanicciati and his unit dealt constantly with land mines and snipers. He was injured three times.
The first incident occurred when a bullet went through the head of a friend and lodged in Spanicciati’s elbow between his bones. He was stitched up in a Da Nang hospital and sent back into action.
His second injury occurred when a piece of mortar hit him in his back under his arm.
The third wound happened during the Tet Offensive on St. Valentine’s Day in 1968. A rifle grenade blew up in his hand and face.
He spent a month in a hospital in Guam and finished his recovery at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
When healthy, he became a military escort, traveling with the bodies of fallen soldiers from Dover Air Force base in Delaware to their homes. At that time, the Vietnam War was unpopular, and the American public took out its frustration on soldiers and veterans.
“That was worse than even the war,” he said. “People would curse at you in the airport. I was taking somebody child’s home.”
Spanicciati interacted with people grappling with the rawest form of grief.
He once had the wife of a fallen solider spit in his face at the grave site. Another thankful lady from Battle Creek, Michigan, who resembled Spanicciati’s own grandmother, sent him birthday and Christmas cards for 38 years.
An E-4 Corporal, Spanicciati’s original enlistment expired in 1969.
“I would have stayed in,” he said, “but they would have sent me back to Vietnam. I promised God if he let me out of there alive, I wouldn’t go back.”
He began a career in law enforcement as a police officer in several New Jersey towns. Spanicciati spent 19 years as an investigator with the New Jersey Real Estate Commission.
Spanicciati stayed involved in veteran affairs. He worked with the Vietnam Veterans United to raise $250,000 to build a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Mercer County Park in West Windsor. He worked with Vietnam Combat Veterans to lobby Congress to pass the Victims of Agent Orange Relief Bill in 2017.
Now retired, Spanicciati still attends Mass daily at St. Mary of the Pines in Manahawkin. He volunteers at the soup kitchen and golfs weekly at Ocean Acres Golf Club in Manahawkin.
He is about to become a grandfather for the first time twice over. His daughter April is pregnant as is his son Michael’s wife.
His wife, Eileen, said one of the reasons she wanted to see her husband recognized was what he and other Vietnam Veterans went through after the war.
“When they came back, they were totally disregarded,” she said, “or not respected at all.”
Spanicciati is glad to see that change. He looks with pride as people in airports applaud when military personnel walk by. Spanicciati himself will pay for a soldier’s meal if he’s dining in the same restaurant with him.
“The American public learned their lessons from (Vietnam),” he said. It’s a very different world today.”