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Still taking charge

Neno Sartini helped make Vietnam memorial reality

Neno Sartini with two of his awards: the Gino J. Merli Veterans Center Hall of Honor and the American Spirit Award.

Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Neno Sartini of Wilkes-Barre is often hailed for his volunteerism and dedication to area military veterans.

Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader

Neno Sartini is shown at left in South Vietnam in 1966 being presented the Air Force Commendation Medal by the commander of 619th Tactical Control Squadron.

It was the mid-1980s and Neno Sartini and others from the local Veterans of the Vietnam War post were returning from a bus trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The post’s commander at the time, Robert Tomasetti, told Sartini that there was a need for a memorial honoring Luzerne County veterans.

The retired Air Force master sergeant agreed.

Everyone on the bus thought it was a great idea, too.

“So I got up and said, ‘How many want to serve on a committee? I want to know right now. If you put your hand up, remember that I’m a first sergeant and you don’t ever back out,’ ” the veteran of the Vietnam and Korean wars recalled with a laugh.

“Well, I enlisted most of these guys and they stuck with it, and we built the memorial there.”

That take-charge attitude saw Sartini through the memorial’s successful completion and its dedication on Feb. 21, 1988, on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse. The effort could best be described as grassroots; there were no fancy fundraisers and no corporate donors.

According to a Times Leader article from June 25, 1987, the Luzerne County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee had raised about $42,000 since January 1987, mostly through contributions of $5, $10 and $15. Almost $2,000 had been raised by a fifth-grade class at Dana Street Elementary in Forty Fort.

“It was quite a project and something that I’ll never forget. And we had no idea what we were doing in the beginning, “ the 77-year-old Wilkes-Barre man said with a laugh. “But it was really amazing what we accomplished.”

And although Sartini is often credited with spearheading the planning, he’s very quick to pass along credit. If asked about the memorial, he’ll speak in “we’s,” not in “I’s.”

At the time that the idea was born, Sartini was the vice commander for the Veterans of the Vietnam War post. But, he ensures Tomasetti gets his due.

“This man’s always been there right next to me, for everything I’ve ever done. Nobody does anything by themselves. It took a lot of people to help me to do whatever I’ve accomplished.”

But Tomasetti is quick to point out that it was Sartini’s contacts with county officials and others that made the memorial successful. Sartini is also a born leader, Tomasetti added.

“That’s our Neno. He’s not selfish,” he said. “But really and truly, he was the real leader. He was very passionate about the memorial. In fact, everything that he’s every gotten involved with he’s been very passionate about. He’s very driven; he was our catalyst.”

Path to the military

The Plains Township native didn’t aspire to be a career military man while a student at Plains High School.

“I was one of those guys who couldn’t wait to get out of school. That was the fashion in those days. Most of the people that were part of my gang, they all left school as soon as they were 16. You turned 16, you left school and you went to work. And then you found out that going to work wasn’t all that good.”

So leaving school was what he did in the late 1940s. (He eventually got his general equivalency diploma in the military.) Jobs at a lumber company and in the coal mines followed. Sartini didn’t work in the mines very long before he witnessed someone his age die on the job.

“That was more or less the end of my career in the coal mines. I worked a few more months, but I could not adjust myself to it,” he said.

At about that time, the Korean War was under way and brought with it the draft. In 1948, Sartini enlisted in the Naval Reserves, but soon discovered the Navy wasn’t for him and entered the Air Force.

Still not convinced the military life was for him, Sartini put in his four years and returned to civilian life – and the Wyoming Valley – for almost a year.

“Things were tough around here in 1955 and I decided to go back into the military – it was more to my liking. I felt there was more opportunity for me there.”

Sartini’s military service took him to Guam, Japan, Greenland, Korea and Vietnam, and he was stationed at several bases stateside. He and his wife, Anita, and two sons made homes in Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Texas and eventually Pennsylvania. Not Wilkes-Barre, where Anita was born, or Sartini’s native Plains Township, but in Norristown, Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia.

“I always wanted to come home,” Anita Sartini said. “And we were pretty close there in Norristown.”

Sartini spent four years as a recruiter there. But active duty called him to Vietnam in 1965, where he was stationed in the Mekong Delta for one year. Sartini doesn’t say too much about his service in Vietnam except that he was awarded a Bronze Star, among other medals.

“After Vietnam, I didn’t feel quite right because of what had happened. The Korean War was a forgotten war and the Vietnam War was just a terrible, terrible war and the people were very, very unkind to the veterans when they returned and that bothered me very, very much. Especially for those who were prisoners of war and those that were killed over there.

“You might say that’s survivor’s guilt, but that’s why I got involved with veterans groups.”

In addition to the Veterans of the Vietnam War, Sartini is also active in the Italian American Veterans of Luzerne County, the Plains Township American Legion and the Korean War Veterans of Luzerne County.

After Vietnam, Sartini returned to the area and settled in Wilkes-Barre, where he still lives. Little did he know working at the Armed Forces Examining Center on North Main Street in Wilkes-Barre would be his last assignment as a military man.

“It was a three-year tour. I decided I liked it and I spent 10 years there,” he said.

Sartini retired from the military in 1978, after a distinguished 26-year career. But he still had one more mission to accomplish.

Building on their dream

It was the mid-1980s, and Sartini and others wouldn’t forget the fact that Luzerne County lost 83 residents during Vietnam. Another seven were considered MIA/POWs. (In 2006, the remains of one of those missing in action – Air Force Maj. John Conlon – were recovered.)

This project had Sartini and the 14 other committee members getting their hands dirty – literally. Sartini said that prior to the statue being erected on the courthouse lawn, committee members and other volunteers could be found at the site with shovels in tow.

On several occasions while working at the site, Sartini noticed a well-dressed man walk by and observe the goings-on. A curious Sartini approached the man one day and told him who he was. That man explained that his name was Frank Rupinski.

Sartini knew instantly that this was the father of one of those missing in Vietnam – Bernard Rupinski.

“He started crying. He said, ‘People have a graveyard or someplace to go to a cemetery to see a stone where their children are buried. We have nothing.

“ ‘Now you’re giving us something,’ ” Sartini quoted Frank Rupinski.

Sartini’s eyes welled with tears as he recalled this encounter around 20 years ago. “That stuck in my mind. Right then and there I knew we had to complete it.”

A lot of the labor for the memorial was done by the committee, but many businesses donated building materials and local unions supplied masons and carpenters at no charge. Raising the money wasn’t an obstacle either.

“We just went around hustling. I mean we did some talking. We had to get that built. We weren’t worried about the money.”

The committee members also wanted part of themselves to be part of the statue. “So before (sculptor Gerhard Baut) put the two big pieces together, we had him make a heart about 2 feet high by 2 feet wide by 2 feet thick.

“I threw my Bronze Star medal in there. A lot of them wrote letters. (Baut) took that and welded it and that heart sits up in that cavity right now. A lot of mementos are in there.”

Through his experience in planning the Vietnam Memorial, Sartini later helped organize efforts for a Korean War Memorial, which is also on the courthouse lawn.

If Americans learned anything from the Vietnam War, Sartini hopes it’s that it is important to support our troops, regardless of how one might feel about war.

“There’s a war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether you support it wholeheartedly or the politics of it, that’s not the point of it.

“The point is you have to support the men and women that are fighting because they’re outstanding. That’s the main thing. Because they’re the best in the world, the best trained. They did what their country asked them to do.

“We must never forget that they’re all heroes, every one of them.”

Saluting the sergeant

Sartini’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In addition to his military honors and medals, he’s also been lauded for his service to veterans.

He’s won the American Spirit Award which is presented to a civilian, individual or organization that consistently supports and exhibits great patriotism to our country. In November, he was inducted into the Gino J. Merli Veterans Center Hall of Honor in Scranton. Also in November, his record was placed into the 110th Congressional Record by U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke.

“His love for this Nation and the men and women who have served in uniform to protect this land and the freedoms we enjoy as United States citizens knows no bounds. Clearly, Mr. Sartini has improved the quality of life for all with whom he comes into contact and, as such, he has earned our respect and deepest gratitude,” Kanjorski spoke on the U.S. House of Representatives floor on Nov. 5, 2007.

Deb Schlosser, voluntary service specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Plains Township, said Sartini has logged 2,400 volunteer hours over 14 years.

“He’s very well known throughout the medical center,” Schlosser said.

“We’re all very proud of him. (The awards he’s received) are all very well deserved.”

Sartini, who calls his volunteer work at the VA “probably the most important thing I do,” offers his services there at least once a week.

Although he doesn’t foresee slowing down his volunteer work at the VA any time soon, he does plan to pass the torch in other areas. He said he is stepping out of the planning role for some events, including the anniversary of the dedication of the Luzerne County Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After all, he’s been master of ceremonies for two decades.

“So that was my last hurrah (on Feb. 21) with that. But I’ll still be going there every February. I’ll be there for sure, but I won’t be organizing.”

“After Vietnam, I didn’t feel quite right because of what had happened. The Korean War was a forgotten war and the Vietnam War was just a terrible, terrible war and the people were very, very unkind to the veterans when they returned and that bothered me very, very much. Especially for those who were prisoners of war and those that were killed over there. …”

Retired Master Sgt. Neno Sartini
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