Vietnam veterans often recall their homecoming as a time with little accolade. Despite being on the front lines in a war that left many with far-reaching mental and physical inhibitions, their returns were met with little or no fanfare.
Mike Erro, 65, is one of these veterans. On Thursday - nearly 40 years since returning from Vietnam - he was pinned with six medals, including a Purple Heart, for his service in the war as a light weapons infantryman with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment "Brave Rifles."
Erro spent the past 16 years as a resident at Hopewell, a therapeutic farm community in Mesopotamia for adults with mental illness, where he is treated for paranoid schizophrenia, the result of both a difficult life and his time in the military.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Margaret Thompson
U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan Thomas pins several awards onto Army veteran Mike Erro, left, Thursday for his service during the Vietnam War. Laura Pechaitis, senior constituent advocate for Sen. Sherrod Brown, watches.
Residents, staff members and family filled Hopewell's conservatory to watch as U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan Thomas pinned the medals that Erro had never received onto his jacket.
"I can just say that I'm proud of (the medals), I'm proud of being a member of the U.S. Army," Erro said.
Erro's brother, Dan Robert, 60, attended with several other family members. He said the family broke up when they were young, and Erro's four siblings were adopted into different families.
"Mike was never adopted. We didn't know what happened to him. We didn't meet until I was 19 and he was already out of the Army," Robert said. "He had stepped on a mine and they're still pulling shrapnel out of his back."
Erro has been through Veterans Administration hospitals and placed on various medications to cope with the effects of his traumatic life, Robert said.
Holding back tears, Robert found it hard to express what Hopewell and the ceremony mean to him and Erro.
"He found this place and he's been a totally different person," he said. "It's just unbelievable."
It was the staff at Hopewell that took it upon themselves to see that Erro would be recognized.
"We're all very proud of Mr.Erro. He served his country during a very difficult war. Like so many veterans experienced, coming back to the states was a difficult transition. He is very honored to finally be receiving his medals," said Hopewell's Executive Director Rick Karges, LISW-S, ACSW.
Betsie Arvin, Hopewell's marketing and outreach coordinator, and Candace Carlton, MSW, LISW-S, Hopewell's quality improvement and compliance director, spearheaded the effort. The two women had been thinking about recognizing Erro for the 14 years that they have spent working with Erro, but previous leadership at the facility weren't interested in the idea, they said.
"Betsie and I always kind of questioned it, but in more recent months, (Erro) was saying he'd like to have his medals," Carlton said. "We started digging in the archives and found a form in his chart. It just kind of went from there."
Erro was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1967, served 10 months and 20 days in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1969 with the rank of Specialist 4. Carlton said Arvin was able to get a hold of the right people in U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's office, namely Senior Constituent Advocate Laura Pechaitis, who arranged the pinning ceremony.
"I asked if she would mail the medals and she said no, these need to be pinned on him," Carlton said before the ceremony. "He's excited, a little nervous, a little anxious, but happy at the same time."
Carlton said Erro doesn't talk about his time in the military very often, partly because of the trauma of it and partly because his memory isn't so great.
"We took him out to buy a special suit for the ceremony. You could see how happy it made him feel," Karges said.
On Thursday at 1 p.m., Erro's long overdue ceremony took place and the following medals were pinned on his new suit:
National Defense Service Medal
Combat Infantry Badge
Vietnam Service Medal with 4 Bronze Starts
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon with Device
Sharpshooter Badge and Auto Rifle Bar and Machine Gun Bar
More than 40 years after completing his service, Erro was able to tangibly hold on to the sacrifice he made during the Vietnam War, just in time for Memorial Day.
"It seems like I haven't realized before how much people in my life like me," Erro said. "It's good to be liked."