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Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans | Tony Magnifico, Marines, 1967 to 1969

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Tony Magnifico is different from most American veterans of the Vietnam War in that he actually considers the southeast Asian nation to be his home. He served there as a Marine in some of the conflict’s worst fighting in the late 1960s, but returned in 2008 and met a woman, Lan, who would become his wife. The couple now lives in Gainesville, where our conversation took place Oct. 5, 2017.

My name is Tony Magnifico. My place of birth is Paterson, New Jersey. My date of birth of is October 29th, 1948.

Where do you live now? And how long have you lived here?

My wife and I live here in Gainesville, Florida. We moved here from Vietnam in August 2012.

What’s your educational background?

Two years of college and also some construction engineering courses to assist my construction business that I once owned.

Do you remember the first time you heard of Vietnam, how old you might have been?

18 years old.

Do you remember where?

Hackensack, New Jersey.

And how?

All my friends were figuring a way not to go to Vietnam.

What year would that have been?

1967.

And…what was your response? What did you know about it when they started talking about Vietnam?

I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. I was the one not to follow any politics, news. I’m a churchgoing person, so my entire life from the age of 40 years-old has been consumed with working with grandpa and going to church…and being devoted to the catholic churches, especially Virgin Mary.

So what changed? How did you end up serving? And what branch did you serve?

I served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a lot of my friends were doing drugs, and I wanted to break away from that. I felt I was responsible to serve my country. My uncle, Robert, was in the U.S. Marine Corps, so I wanted to serve, just like Uncle Robert and be a U.S. Marine.

Where did you serve and what year?

I served after boot camp in…what they would call…IRT Training, which was supposedly advanced training for Vietnam. And then we went directly to Okinawa, spent a few days there. Went through indoctrination and our shots. In 1967, September — end of September — I entered Da Nang.

Did you do your training on Parris Island?

Yes, Parris Island.

What do you remember of that experience?

Those are good experiences but challenging, because back then, they were pretty rough on you. But for me, anything of a challenge is good. At that time, I was studying kung fu — well, not kung fu — karate and martial arts. So I always wanted to be in shape, learning how to fight. And … and eventually a boxing trainer. But going back to your question. What’s that question again?

Parris Island. You were there for about ten to twelve weeks?

I believed that was 12 weeks. Yeah.

And then, you got your assignment for Saigon or for Vietnam late? And what do you remember when you first got into the country?

Yes. I arrived in country the end of September, or first week of October, in Da Nang.

What do you think of the land and the people and culture that you saw?

Horrible smell when you got off that jet. The jet was a TWA. Had a beautiful airline stewardess. We had no idea what we were going into. All we knew was that we were serving as Marines, to fight against communism. A lot of the ladies were squatting down with the black PJ-type pajamas. Some of them, you would say…using the toilet on the road, and…uhm…just a horrible smell.

Well, what was it? Can you describe it?

The smell? Well, there is nothing in America that smells like that, actually.

The smell? Well, there is nothing in America that smells like that, actually. It was a strange smell. It was in Da Nang, and I couldn’t give you a comparison as far to what it would smell like. I can’t say kerosene. I can’t say it was any popular, well-known…how do you say…gas smell. Just very unique and very hot.

What were some of the responsibilities in your marine unit when you first got there?

Well, my first responsibility was to fill sandbags in what would be called perimeter guard duty. When they finished eating, they dumped all the excess foods into these 55-gallon drums, and we would take the drums near the village or hamlet in Quang Tri province. We convoyed from Da Nang to Quang Tri province. And we would unload the excess food, the leftovers, and they would capture it with their shirts like this (held out) and dumped it into baskets. We tried to get them back to the hamlet. We did that for a while. And we got accustomed to it. And that’s when I lost a little boy I was going to adopt.

You met him in the course of that work?

Yeah. Actually, he met me. One day, I was in a shower, and all of a sudden, this tiny little hand reached out. It was Tao, Mai Tao. And he was little Tao, and he became a very dear friend to me. I knew that his family was killed in the hamlet, and I promised to take him back home with me.

Do you know how his family was killed? Was it Viet Cong or Americans?

I lost my innocence at that point.

Viet Cong. Yeah. They would torture and kill villagers. Sort of giving them — putting them into fear, so they would not share any information to the Marine units near the hamlet. One of those last days I did that duty, I was teaching these new guys who just came in the country. At the back of the truck, VC pushed him under the truck tire — of a big dump truck —  and crushed him…I jumped off the truck to pick up his body parts and put it in a poncho liner. Paid the Buddhist funeral that cost me $35. That was when — how do you say it — I changed. I lost my innocence at that point.

Do you remember how old he was?

About eight years-old. He was about that big.

Can you describe then…You mentioned that you changed. Do you remember your first contact with enemies beside that moment? Did it come before that or after that? How did that start to unfold?

It was at…No, our first contact with enemies was actually when I was sniped at with what they would call a tracer round. Sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning. It was at a corner post. It would be post six…post five…and post seven here. Every night, I would look at the moon, knowing that my family and my friends were going to see the same moon in twelve hours. And when I see the moon, I would say, “Hey.” It gave me contact with the people I care about. One night while I was saying that, I said the rosary every night. One night I heard that….(clap) saw the fire out of the muzzle. And as I was praying, I fell in slow motion to the ground. The ground went over my head. Post seven and five called it a tracer round. They went over my post, so the CO came out with this star guy that was a starlighter, but they looked at it with green-led receives of the tree line. So I explained to the colonel…to this lieutenant what an occurrence it is. He said, ‘That’s impossible, cause, to hear the sound, to see the fire of muzzle, and to the see the red dots…right at the minute it hit you…but you can not possible be fallen in time. It’s just totally…literally impossible.” But I went down in slow motion. So I knew at that point, my life is going to be protected by Virgin Mary. I had no doubt in my mind.

In what type of operation was your unit involved in? Were you guys near the DMZ?

Well, what year are you talking about? Mine was there 1967, 1968, and 1969.

So you were there for the Tet Offensive then?

Yes, Tet Offensive. Hue City.

And particularly ugly in that area, right? During the Offensive? You were there for a month, right?

Getting shot at from a building — that was new for us.

We were there for more than a month. We came in February 2nd. First, we came from Quang Tri, went through Hue City. It was a beautiful town, by the way. Back then, there were banks, and there were cars which we have never seen before. Not in Vietnam…Not in Quang Tri….Yeah, you would see that in 1967. Stores. And Smoke, that was my partner. We were going to go back because we. Well, we were out in a M-16 machine, and were gonna… He was gonna get a truck to go back to our jeep…and he liked to smoke marijuana…stuffs like that. And then we got called in to convoy up, and we were going away. Well, we had no idea we were going to Tet Offensive. We knew nothing about that. Then, we were getting on the truck. It was a dump truck, and we loaded it up. We were all happy we were going to Hue. Just as we approached the actual city on Route 1. We were getting hit from the sides from the tree lines, so we disembarked from the trucks throughout 79 rounds into the tree lines. Chopper came in and gunned down. Came in and launched rockets at the bank of the tree lines. We got back on the vehicle and we headed into City Hue, and there’s where I first engaged in my first combatant VC. He was on the second-story window, and somebody yelled, “Fingers! Up there!” And I see the black PJ, and I was sitting on the tailgate of a truck. Everybody had me waiting inside so I could pop up my M-16s, gave a shot, right? It went underneath the window or so, and just popped it up a little, sprayed them, or you just about cutting them in half. And then we knew we were in trouble. Getting shot at from a building — that was new for us.

When we arrived, Walter Cronkite had his…what do you call…his photographer on the cabin of the truck. It actually made it back to my aunt Rose Mary and Uncle Tommy. Actually saw the entire thing. Me shooting at some of these things.

Did they recognise you?

Well yeah! (Chuckles) My aunt knew me from the family. But yeah, they recognized me, and it was on one of the news things. Then there was the photo on, I think, Life Magazine. I think that was when we went through the Citadel, but not this one. This was on TV news, and when we pulled up to the MACV compound, and when we were getting hit from both walls. It was all over the place. It was an ambush shot through the wall way ahead, through those concrete walls. And I disengaged, set up my M-60, my A-gunner took off. He ran… And we had a French lady taking photos of us. I mean, literally, in the middle of the street. We were getting shot at. We are shooting back, and she is taking videos and pictures of us! I mean, when we got into the compound, which was safer, so this lady was crazy, and she wasn’t with Walter Cronkite. She was with a French team. Later on, we found out she was actually passing information to the NVA. But that’s where I met Walter Cronkite, in the compound.

That was where I was first wounded, by the way, was in Hue City.

Could you talk about that?

Well, Smoke and I were…At that point in time, this major was gonna promise to allow me to go into S2 Intelligence, some Vietnamese translation and interrogating. We didn’t have the job yet, but we were guarding some 16 POW’s at a MACV compound. One of them was Chinese by the way. And it was at quonset hut. The sections were separated with chicken wire. Three sections of it. One section had 55 gallons of gas in there — diesel. One was where we slept. And the other section was where they were jailed. And so you could see everything. We were watching them; they were watching us. So this diesel stuff is behind us, which we didn’t pay attention to until we realized it was there, and so were responsible for feeding them. Because we were exercising them to make sure they were doing okay. And then one was smoking a cigarette and put the cigarette out, and I don’t know who — I had no idea who — dropped something into those diesel huts… On this side, my partner and I would be watching POW and the new guy that came in. I was waiving the cigarette to the right, and all of a sudden, you hear, “boosh.” And you could see the cloud of fire coming over. The whole ceiling was fire.

So, did someone shoot that tank? Or somebody lit a cigarette?

I don’t really know. I do remember the cigarette, but I couldn’t tell you what ignited that fuel. But I can tell you it was a full cloud. I grabbed this new guy who was doing guard duty. He came toward me and said, “Let’s get out of here.” We ran out, and these POWs were burning alive. And, one of them tore apart in the metal. It was like a sheet metal, and the hole was about this big. And as they were trying to crawl out of that little hole, you would literally… you could see them burning alive. And the eyes were just.

Hear more stories from this series, “Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans”

Was the entire rest of 1968 and into 1969 heavy fighting for you, or was there a certain point you were assigned to a less…?

No, my combat experience goes from…December….I got a reprieve starting at the end of May 1969. May 20 was the last time I got wounded, which was south of Da Nang. That was about a year and a half, about 19 months later.

So, you were wounded when that fire burnt, right?

No. I wasn’t wounded from that. I met Callous. He was in the IRT training just after PI. And, I met him, and pulled up on his jeep, and these C-rations, and ammo. So, I told him to jump on the back of my mule. We had a mule which was a flatbed jeep that would would pull Marines that were wounded and bring them down to the stadium. So they jumped in the back, and I drove them to the stadium, at that point, may be a mile or a mile and a quarter down the road. We were ambushed. We were hit with a rocket in front of the jeep. I wasn’t driving. Callous was driving. He flipped, turned the truck, and we went straight in and we hit one of these short retaining walls. It was not a retaining wall but just protects these houses there. When he hit it, I bounced off. I was only 114 pounds. I wasn’t a big guy. I bounced off. The jeep turned over and wedged my leg between the jeep as they were shooting at us. Callous died in that.

It was late ’67 or ’68?

‘68. We were still in Tet.

And then how about your second wound?

Second wound was south of Da Nang. It was 1969, May 20. That’s when we got overrun.

It was October when Tao was killed. We had firefights in Quang Tri. Ambushes. And we got hit from the banks. We checked the jungles and run through villages, and there, you don’t know who you kill and you don’t kill. Everybody was shooting; everybody was firing. What I was busy doing, was trying to keep safe. Every time I fired and gave a burst from the M-16, I moved to a different location as quickly as possible.

So we got a good reprieve… December, we convoyed to Phu Bai. And Phu Bai was very quiet, very big base camp. And there you had hooches where you could sleep on a cart and not on the ground. That was a good three, four-week reprieve without any combat except for incoming rocket rounds. That’s an everyday thing there.

So at what point do you come back home. Your active service ends in early 1969?

May 20th, 1969, when we were overrun and hit in the back. And they triaged me into Da Nang, and from Da Nang to Cam Ranh Bay, to the hospital. I remember the doctor comes up, telling me, ‘Marine, we can send you home cause you got a second wound here. I said, ‘Don’t send me yet.’ We waited a long time, and the only reason that it extended was to keep my twin brother David from going into combat… So as long as I stayed in Vietnam, he would be out of harm’s way. Luckily, as the major pointed out, David had about two months left and he’d be discharged…. They flew me back home.

So where did you fight in Southeast Asia?

We went from Cam Ranh Bay to Japan and I think it’s a fuel stop… You don’t feel any pain, and then the long trip to Alaska from Japan. And then D.C. And there we had a day, a day and a half to call our folks and tell them that we were home. A bus that took us to St. Albans Military Hospital. As we were on the bus, we were getting hit with rocks and with all these other stuffs. May 1969, there would be the protesters…very violent, and we don’t really know what’s going on, coming in from Vietnam.

Did you expect any of that? Did you hear anything about it?

I had no idea that was going on. No, I mean we never did, because whenever you have time to break, you party, you dance, you listen to music, and whenever you go out, you’re in harm’s way. You do not know when the rockets are coming in. You don’t know when you’re gonna be ambushed. You don’t know when you are doing the search and destroy mission, and someone’s gonna pop out of a hole. So, it’s a….how do you say it…R&R. For me, it’s R&R. I didn’t do R&R out of the country by the way, except for one, on my extensions.

(The anti-war demonstrations) became real. First of all, there were these so-called…Red or whatever you called that…because they were weaponed up and this fellow got cut by one of the protesters that the military gave. 143 stitches to his face. That was the protest you got, so that’s why we never communicated. Well, I never communicated with anyone about me and Vietnam, except for my family.

You never knew when someone was gonna die, and one of the guys saved my life. You savor that. You can’t replace that experience.

People asked me, and I said, ‘I had a great time.’ And I did. My great time was the time with my brothers that I knew I could depend on. We were close. You never knew when someone was gonna die, and one of the guys saved my life. You savor that. You can’t replace that experience. It’s like having a baby with a woman. You’ll never ever forget having your first child. Same thing with your first firefight, second firefight, the third firefight, the fourth… incoming rockets. Every time you are getting hit is a new experience. Validating when you have someone with you that you love, and they love you. You don’t realize that until you come here. When you get back to the world and this place here, that’s when we realize because the way they treated us. So I became very busy with construction with my grandfather, boxing and that my whole life is keeping busy, to avoid that sadness.

You mentioned how Tao’s death changed you while you were there, but when you get back, do you remember when you started to recognize how the war changed you?

When I came back to the states, I did not like garrison (duty). I ended up doing six months solitary confinement in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When I got discharged, I had a lot of hate for long hairs. You had long hair, I was coming after you for sure. What they would do and why, I had no idea. All I know is that if you were against what happened there, the people that passed away and didn’t make it back — there were short intervals of outburst of anger. Then there would be joy. Back to work, back to boxing, keeping busy. And that’s how I gave myself medication and, very luckily, I had a very good trainer, and I enjoyed it.

How long did that continue?

Well, let’s see. After about two years of doing the construction and boxing, I became a police officer. And that was about a year and a half. And then I decided to go into business. Always boxing by the way. That I will never stop. So at that point, I stopped being a cop. The reason was because they wanted me to arrest people more often… especially the young guys.

What agency is that?

That was Hackensack PD.

And so, anyway, I had my own business called Champ Construction, you know, after boxing. I ended up becoming a (sparring partner for a) guy by the name of Roberto Duran. My champ was Benny Leonard, 26 times Lightweight World Champion, so I was very fortunate, and I stopped being a cop. I went straight to the camp and prepared to fight for world title with Ken Buchanan. That’s why I went fully and completely all boxing and got really involved in the construction company, which is concrete.

About 1975, I went into the priesthood. I had a calling. A priest approached me in his chapel. He told me to read this books that said “Playboy to Priest.” I wasn’t a playboy, by the way, but “Playboy to Priest.” I went downstairs, into the basement of the store of magazines, and I went back and saw him the next day. He said he wanted me to go to this seminary in Matawan, New Jersey. This seminary was… It’s quiet. It’s old, and I couldn’t find anyone on the grounds until one lady walked up, and she said, “Pardon me. I need to visit this place. My priest told me to come here.” So she opened the door, went inside, into this monastery-type of seminary. I met a couple guys there who were really nice and gave me a tour. We were going to have lunch in a little bit. He took me up to the roof, and in that setting, I said, “How many guys do you have here?” He said, “Well, we actually house 310, but we only have about 90.” Wow.

I said, OK. I went to pray for a while, and I was very devoted the Virgin Mary. Praying the rosary, standing on top of that roof. That was my calling — I thought. 310 seminarian (spots) and only 90. Wow. They just gotta need me, and I made the commitment to be a priest.

Then did you become a priest?

No. I went to the seminary, and I met a girl. (Chuckle) Well, actually it wasn’t a girl. It was something that occurred to my grandma. She had a terrible accident collision with a bus, so I took a sabbatical and called Fr. Mark Machesky. He was my vocational director, and I said “I need to go home, and take care of my grandmother.” It was on Thanksgiving when I went there, they weren’t taking care of her very well. The household was dirty. They just weren’t doing a good job, so when I came back, I told Mark, “Is there any way to break from this seminary? I promise to come back. I really love it here. It’s very peaceful.” For a Vietnam vet, that’s beautiful. He gave me a sabbatical. I told my family that I’m going to get the business back up again and in one year, I’m gonna go back to the seminary. Well, that never happened.

It became too dependent on my ability….What did I do? I continued working. We were in the ‘70s… So I was in construction, doing state work, and we got pretty big. Then one of my uncle’s dear friend and my best buddy. He owes a lot of my money. So in helping him… He had to run away cause he was in trouble with the mob, so I helped him pack his little truck. That was the truck we used to carry to work. And he drove to California, but I continued to stay and work here. The group of guys are enhancing our business, but they liked me, and I liked them. I’m not gonna quit. I don’t ever quit. No way. And so we continued to business, and that went on for about 8 months. And at that time, by the way, I got married. That’s right. I didn’t like her at all (chuckle). I married her because she had wonderful children, Desiree and Danielle. That marriage lasted less than a year.

All that time, did you recognize that the war altered you? When does that come?

No, at that point in time, I don’t recognize any of that. What happened was 1980, when I moved from Jersey with Uncle Joe. That’s a year when I was dissolving the business and went to Cadillac, well first Alabama, and then I ended up training boxers at a gym in Birmingham. Then I did that for about maybe 3-4 months, called Uncle Joe and my twin brother Dave in California, “I’m coming.” And Uncle Joe went, “Great!” I got there. They weren’t doing anything. We expected them to be working, so I went to work for an anodizing– you take metal to dip into this to change the color or whatever– I took that for $85 and got paid that week. I bought a bunch of small newspaper advertising. I picked my first job like the next day. Finally, you got off, you got paid. On Saturday, I got about $3,000… The next day, on Monday, I turned in my resigning. I started a business. I stayed in California up until the biggest earthquake.

1989, right? Was that the one?

Yeah, I guess it would be in ‘89. And so, that was my second quake. That’s when I decided to get out of here. A quake is very frightening to me, you know. So I took a bus back to Jersey to meet my cousin Jimmy, Uncle Julio, Uncle Joe Joe. Started business all over again now in Jersey.

When I came back, my cousin Jimmy, they had some difficult pool decks, so they didn’t know how to do these cantilever pool decks. I did that in California, so that went on for about two months. Happy summer, and then I met a girl Rachel at my sister’s. I think it was a birthday party, and with the touch of the hand when she lit my cigarette. I lit hers. There was a connection…. Rachel and I were really close. We spoke on the phone a whole bunch. I moved to Brooklyn. I started a business there. There I had a good crew, Polish people from a Pollak town. Then, that war came out — the Kuwait War in 1991. And that’s when I came to the realization that I was in trouble. Because coming back in Jersey, I thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out that was a panic attack. Then they kept me in a locked ward, told me that I had PTSD….

And that’s when they tried to tell me that I had some kind of mental disorder, so they medicated me in a locked ward. I was in there for about 2 weeks. That was one of my attempted suicides. I did that 3 times, attempting suicide. But, anyway, the thing is that when they discharged me, they said you gonna go down and pick up your prescription. Then every month, you refill…

You know, they had a big series of medication, and then they had me go to a psychiatrist to follow up. And that’s when I didn’t really believe I had this problem…That’s when I moved to Boston. Very luckily, got into a program there. And after about 8 months, I went to a very intense program. It was a five-month inpatient program for PTSD. What happened was that you go back into war, but you have your family to live with you through the war. That’s the doctors. And they said, “We would take care of your son, and he’ll be safe, and we’ll give him back to you. You continue loving him, and we’ll help you with that.” Now, we didn’t get that when we went to Vietnam. We didn’t get that when we came back from Vietnam, so that’s where they taught Rachel, and my sister, about my condition. That’s where I learned that I actually… mine was very severe with post-traumatic stress.

So, the turning point for you, obviously?

Big turning point. Yeah. No. Beginning of a turning point. It took me seven years to accept the fact that I suffered from that. Many flashbacks. My longest flashback was three days in the jungle… But then the turn-around for me was when I came out of prison…I was in prison for almost for three years. I made a commitment to get my own self-respect back. I made a commitment to become conscientious, and God wishes maybe I can go back to the priesthood. That’s what I wanted to do. But in doing that, I met a Vietnamese lady, not my wife. She was a doctor. And the relationship lasted for a year. We moved to DC.

But then, the good news comes. I came out of church in October, and met this fellow, telling me a miracle gonna happen to me…something very valuable from God. There I wrote some letters, something called “Vietnam Cupid,” and it was faxed to many different girls. And one response was very different, sort of casual but not all of that cheesecake stuff. And it was my wife’s (Lan).

And so we spoke. I made a commitment that we’re gonna talk for 30 days, but you’re gonna tell me two things, and I’m gonna do the same, that you gonna tell one bad character about yourself, and one good. And I’m gonna do the same. We gonna do that for 30 days. Well, I don’t think it lasted for two weeks. There was nothing else to reveal. And I said when I see you, which I think was something that God intends us to have, which could be marriage.

When I arrived in Tan Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City, coming out of that airport, there were thousands of people there, and then my wife told me she was short, so I had a funny feeling that she probably lost her leg by the way in the war, but that was OK. I didn’t mind that. And then, as she came out, sure enough, maybe she did lose her legs? Maybe it’s OK about that. I made that commitment. And then, she was standing. (Chuckles) My little Lan was right there.

Lan and Tony outside their home in Gainesville. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)

What year was that when you met?

2008. That was three or four days left before Tet Lunar New Year.

Was that your first trip back to Vietnam?

Yeah. It sure was. And second day after we met, I went to her mother’s home and proposed marriage to mother. I made the commitment. Her mother accepted it, you know. (Chuckle) They didn’t even know that she was going to meet me, by the way. That was the funny part. And I was proud of being the first man that my wife probably kissed….

Quan Nguyen: What are the changes you saw and picked up after the war? From Vietnam?

I always call Vietnam home. It’s a little reverse for me.

Oh…yeah. 100 percent. It was like a 360-degree turnaround. You know, all these so-called. They told me I was injured mentally because of the trauma you experience there. But Vietnam was made peaceful, and I thought that I was going to do a memorial for Tao. But I ended up marrying Lan, and I fell in love. My mother, before she passed away, goes “You gotta go back home…which is Vietnam.” I always call Vietnam home. It’s a little reverse for me. (Chuckle) But yeah, my change is that I was home. I was at peace.

Quan Nguyen: How did you come to realize that Vietnam would be your second home?

First home.

Your first home.

The day Little Tao died, there was something about the Vietnamese that I fell in love with. It was something spiritually. I couldn’t wait to go back to Vietnam. When they sent me back home (to the United States), I was dying to go back to Vietnam. I couldn’t wait, but I had to take care of my family. That comes first.

Did you share your feelings with any of your Marine brethren?

Very lightly, because my whole focus was trying to stay alive, to get back home to see my brother and my family. Yes, I loved it. These people, something about them, but there was nothing nice to say at that time, because there were constant combats. But it was why I go back. It’s sort of like an innate need, an innate drive.

I have everyone and my mother saying, “Tony’s gonna eventually marry an Asian girl.” They knew that from the time I was young.  

Quan Nguyen: Who did you project most often onto the moon? Your grandmother? Your uncle? Your brother?

Grandpa. Grandma. Uncle Julio. And Aunt Rose Mary. Those were the ones I knew there was a connection. You couldn’t wait for that moon to show up. Now, I’m talking about when you’re on perimeter duty. You don’t do that when you’re on ambush. You know, but there’s a savior in that, because I was allowed to pray. And I prayed openly. In the middle of that post. Usually at 2 o’clock in the morning. You don’t start post duty until 12 midnight, but that was a private prayer that I was saying to rosary religiously, and sing two songs. I got lousy voice. But one was “Treasure of Love.” But two songs I sang all the time…cause I knew that God would keep me safe, to be home with my family.

I wouldn’t want to bring up sad memories. But, what inspired…what brought you that affection toward Tao or children in the village?

Well, because he…First, I was a child, but I was a child who had to be a man. When you would get to a certain age, I made a commitment to fight the war. I didn’t know about Communism, but I was there for a purpose. And I see this little boy. Tao came like a ghost. It was just hanging. It was that skinny, little hand. I looked at him, and he had just a…I would say…innocence, but there was something else. There was a sadness in those dark eyes. And, the attachment. He never missed a shower. Never happened. It wasn’t many, cause he was killed. I looked forward to Little Tao, and that I would draw this (pointing at one of his arm) on his arm every day. I draw this on his arm every day after the shower when I was in the camp. Our communication wasn’t that good. He didn’t speak that great of English.

Body language?

Well, we spoke. I mean, he could speak. But what I remember more of, is a love. And that’s the context of what we spoke of. I was a boy in great fear. He was a boy in great fear. So we helped each other. He gave me a purpose to live.

So I heard you would visit Vietnam this December.

Oh yeah. I can’t wait. We gotta go.

How often?

Not often enough. Because when we arrived here, Lan, besides work with her full-time job, she’s also doing full-time college. She’s an honor roll student. We’ve been so committed. I’m supportive of her to finish her college. This is her third degree, by the way. You know, in Vietnam, education is important. So, my flower, Lan is a graduate. But when had to go back before the end of December. I want to see Elder Aunt…in Nghe An She’s getting on to age…(turns to Lan) How old is aunt?

Lan: 85.

85. My wife’s brother, Trung. He passed away 3 years ago. We never got a chance to see him. I’m not letting that happen. No. Cause Aunt is my wife’s favorite aunt, and with Alzheimer’s, when she speaks to Lan and myself, she recognizes us. So if I had my way, I would spend at least the winter months that we have here. I mean, 6 months of Vietnam. The time I spend here… it’s like prison. It’s just so that she could get Social Security. You think I like it? This country is a great country. But for me, Vietnam is home. I find peace there.

Do you think you’ll go there and live there permanently at some point?

I want to make that a permanent home, but now I’m a little bit concerned about all this political war stuff. I hope…I’m praying cause Vietnam is my sweetheart of a place. I’m only here because of my home. I came here because I lost my legs and the most important thing is Lan got her citizenship, and she has it now. When I have to go back with all these medical stuff, she wasn’t allowed to go with me. Lan is now Lan Nguyen Magnifico. And now they can’t stop her from coming to visit America. But yes, living in Vietnam is what I really like. I miss it.

Since 2008 was the first time you went back and since 1969. You developed much that much of affinity for that quickly?

I’ve been planning that trip for years. Years! The only reason I stayed here was my mom’s still alive, and I wasn’t leaving. When mom passed away, right in CA, and just before she did, she told me “It’s time to go back home.”

What connections with the Vietnamese community in Gainesville have you two made? You mentioned one temple here.

The pagoda? We have the pagoda. We have Vietnamese friends. We have Ly. We have Chi Tu. Chi Tu was actually a nurse in Vietnam, and she used to cure a bacterial disease that I incurred when I was tortured in Vietnam. And so, she passed on information to some place that gives medicinal weed. That’s what I call it. Anything to stop the pain.

Unfortunately, I go through excruciating pain, starting at 7 p.m., but it really happened in the morning. And you never it’s coming at you. It’s a certain bacterial disease that’s from a bacteria in the soil in Vietnam.

And that’s not Agent Orange?

No. It’s from being tortured. It gets into the blood, and they put punji sticks in my fingernails.

You were a POW then, for a time?

Four days. Well, it wasn’t POW. You don’t get POW status unless you served a certain amount of time, you know. But I was captured and tortured. I escaped and got hit around the parameter. This fellow also escaped, and I was fine, until this disease came on me about 15, 18 years ago. And then it was great for years, but it happened again. It just started again in May, June. But you can hear me screaming, yelling. You don’t want to see it. It’s frightening for most people.

Does it have a name?

(To Lan) What did she say?

Lan: When my husband was tortured, some people put, like, a bamboo, and then maybe, not the clean and sterilized. So it go inside and then. If we take care immediately, maybe it can help. But he didn’t take care for a long time, so it goes into the blood. Maybe coming back here, my husband didn’t recognize this. They think it’s a pain, and the doctor doesn’t see it becoming a bacteria going into the blood.

Ethan: Simply put, blood poisoning, I guess?

But soon as the pain is over, I’m ready to rock and roll. Don’t worry about it. It’s only pain.

Tony: Yeah, it’s a blood poisoning. And it’s a dormant thing. It’s like PTSD-post. You know, the pain, believe or not, is the easiest, but my wife is very frightened and she didn’t want to see it. But soon as the pain is over, I’m ready to rock and roll. Don’t worry about it. It’s only pain. At my age, I’m pretty healthy.

Are you still working? You (Lan) are going to school, and you, (Tony)?

Well, I train. Well, they got a gym down in 13th Street right here by the house here. And I…make sure my wife has everything she needed to do school. That’s the first commitment. So, I still have a tendency to work with fighters. I can’t get away from that. There’s something I enjoy, and I’m good at it. I’m what they call a master trainer. The Asian Kung-Fu Association with Vietnam actually made me a master of martial arts specializing in U.S. boxing. And that was an honor, a real big honor.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

About Ethan Magoc

Ethan is a journalist at WUFT News. He's a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing emagoc@wuft.org or calling 352-294-1525.

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