Vet’s Brother Seeks Posthumous Recognition
By ROSS BARKAN
|Anthony Armenio is hoping for more recognition for his brother, Robert, who died fighting in Vietnam in 1969.
Photo by Ross Barkan
“Look out of the window and imagine that’s Vietnam.”
Anthony Armenio, 82 and battling cancer in several parts of his body, shakily gestures at his wide window overlooking Alley Pond Park, turning the sun-soaked foliage into a battleground.
Born on Veteran’s Day, the Korean War veteran, in his own words, “never killed anybody and nobody ever killed me.” But his younger brother was not so lucky. Robert Armenio, 14 years Anthony’s junior, was flying wounded soldiers to a hospital in South Vietnam when he was killed on July 27, 1969, a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
His body arrived in Queens on Aug. 8, 1969, his birthday. At the time of his death, he was engaged.
Robert’s death still haunts his older brother, married for more than a half century, in his comfortable Douglaston home. His brother, a Cambria Heights native, died a 1st Lieutenant; he was the fearless, easy-going helicopter pilot who quickly became a senior pilot when the men working above him perished. On his last tour of duty, he volunteered to relieve an overworked pilot. He never returned.
Robert never became a captain, a sore spot for his brother, but was remarkably decorated in his short life, earning 33 Air Medals, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars with V for Valor, among other honors.
As the decades have piled on top of each other, Anthony has intermittently tried to give his brother some kind of lasting honor. He bitterly trawls through newspaper clippings of other individuals who have had streets named after them, individuals like fellow Marines and priests that he acknowledges are deserving of such honors — he just wishes his brother could be one of them.
“Every year or two, I try to push for something but I always back away,” he said. “My other brother doesn’t even want to know about this anymore; he said, ‘he’s dead, that’s the end of that.’”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) inducted Robert into the New York State Senate Veteran’s Hall of Fame this year. Glad that his brother at last received the recognition, Anthony still hopes for something more.
“I didn’t leave any marks on this earth,” he said. “Can you imagine just for a moment if I told you, ‘go out there’ and somebody with a rifle was ready to kill you? You come back again, you made it, and I say, ‘go back again.’ Could you do it?”
That was what his brother did, flying through burning battlefields to retrieve wounded soldiers and the body parts of those freshly blown apart. Vietnam was an unpopular conflict, unlike World War II, and Anthony never saw his brother mythologized like previous generations of soldiers.
Anthony swears that in 1968 he was sitting in a barbershop when a chill ran up his spine. He would later find out a bullet split off a radar altimeter on his brother’s helicopter, shattering his helmet, wounding his face and earning him his first Purple Heart. A year later, when his brother was dead, Anthony heard the taunts of Vietnam War protesters. “How do you like the war now?” they said.
“He [Robert] would say, ‘R.A.’ saved ‘R.A.’,” he said, smiling sadly. “He would tell me you don’t hear the shots when they’re fired. You just see them hitting off of things.”
Robert attended Andrew Jackson High School, where he earned the affectionate nickname of “bullet,” which ironically described his serene demeanor. He was a ballplayer, pinch hitting for Georgia Southern College when they appeared in the 1964 College World Series. After earning a degree in business administration, he enlisted in 1967, a decision that Anthony still feels guilty about. Little Robert was enamored of his brother when he flew out to California a decade earlier to visit the army base where Anthony was stationed.
Anthony now dreams of a Medal of Honor for his long-dead brother, though he knows that is unlikely. The United States’ highest military honor, it is bestowed upon soldiers for “acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”
“I think his story should be in huge headlines, movies and books, all the helicopter pilots and what they did. God help them,” he said.
Reach Reporter Ross Barkan at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.