My wife, Mary, and I spent a few days last week at a bed-and-breakfast in Cape May, N.J. On the second floor of the Bedford Inn, at a hallway table where guests could help themselves to tea and coffee, was a shrine to a soldier killed in the Vietnam War. His name was Stephen J. Saluga III.
The shrine consisted of a picture of Stephen’s name as it appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a rubbing of his name and a photo of the handsome young man in a flight helmet, taken aboard a helicopter. There is also a framed saying: “Until everyone comes home, until the battle ends, until everyone is safe with their family and friends. Then we shall have peace.” And a painting of a soldier carrying a pack and walking toward a slant of light, titled Heading Home, by Thomas Kinkade.
We asked innkeeper Archie Kirk about Stephen, and he said the soldier was his wife Stephanie’s brother.
Stephen, an Army specialist, was a helicopter crew chief with the 82nd Medical Detachment, 44th Medical Brigade. On Oct. 19, 1968, during a night rescue mission in the Mekong Delta, his chopper crashed and all aboard were killed. Stephen was 21 and the only person from Medford, N.J., to die in the war. Among his medals was a Bronze Star for heroism.
The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial website says Stephen’s helicopter malfunctioned before plunging into the Bassac River and exploding. http://www.njvvmf.org/STEPHENSALUGA-vetmemorial2027. But Archie, who said he himself had gotten in on the tail end of the Vietnam War and was familiar with its vagaries, said the circumstances were murky. He said Stephanie found a veteran who’d known her brother in Vietnam, and the vet said the crash happened because the pilot was inexperienced.
The uncertainty reminded me of my cousin Nicky Venditti’s death in Vietnam about nine months after Stephen was killed. Nicky was mortally wounded his first week in the war zone when an Army instructor unwittingly tossed a live grenade during a class for new Americal Division arrivals at Chu Lai. It’s still not clear why the instructor, a sergeant, had a live grenade instead of the inert one he usually carried as a prop. My quest to learn the truth about what happened to Nicky is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. www.davidvenditta.com
Stephanie Kirk’s family has a history of service to the country. Her father, an Army veteran of World War II, hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He died in 2003. A cousin was one of the 17 sailors killed in the 2000 suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen.
During our stay, we didn’t get to talk with Stephanie about her brother. But the loving shrine to Stephen at the Bedford Inn, like the photos of Nicky I have on my desk, is an example of how the memory of Americans who died in that war four decades ago still burns in the hearts of friends and family.