Frank LiVolsi’s obituary pegs him as Greatest Generation.
Its members are known for hard work, sacrifice, personal responsibility, integrity, community service, faithfulness to family, loyalty to friends, and a love of country that propelled victory in World War II.
True to the model, LiVolsi’s childhood friends were lifelong. He was a standout football and baseball player in high school. He was a distinguished graduate of a military college, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
He graduated law school then reported for active duty and was assigned to the 11th Armed Cavalry Regiment. Once deployed, he served as a platoon leader and was promoted to captain after 12 months of active duty.
The U.S. military recognized LiVolsi for his bravery in the field, awarding him the Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Army Commendation Medal for Valor, the Gallantry Cross with Palm, and more.
But LiVolsi did not serve in the Greatest Generation’s war.
He went to Vietnam.
The nation had a different image for those veterans.
Vietnam was a 20-year “troubled” war. It pitted the communist government of North Vietnam and its allies, the Soviet Union and China, against South Vietnam and its ally, the United States.
The horrors of the war played out on the evening news. Americans questioned the purpose. College students demonstrated against it. Some draftees refused to go. Soldiers who returned faced a public that hardly welcomed them back.
“Vietnam veterans had the same accomplishments, the same bravery, the same patriotism as World War II veterans. But Vietnam was an unpopular war, and they were not celebrated,” said Tony Pavia, who wrote “An American Town Goes to War” about Stamford World War II veterans, and “An American Town and the Vietnam War” written with his son, Matt Pavia.
“You can’t call them the Second Greatest Generation, because that implies second-best,” Pavia said. “But they were the second group that was the Greatest Generation.”
In 2017 – half a century after Vietnam – Congress enacted the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act, which asked each state to set aside a day to honor those who served.
Connecticut marks Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day each March 30, the day in 1973 when the last of the U.S. combat troops came home.
LiVolsi had quite a tour in Vietnam.
In 1966-67, he was a 25-year-old tank commander with a platoon of soldiers in their teens and early 20s. The Viet Cong killed two of them – 21-year-old Fred Carter of Rhode Island, and 19-year-old William Johnson of California, who died in LiVolsi’s arms.
After the war LiVolsi opened a law office in downtown Stamford. Copies of Carter’s and Johnson’s Army records hung on his wall for decades.
LiVolsi made headlines in Vietnam in February 1967, when he was just back from a brutal battle that later garnered him a medal. He escorted singer Nancy Sinatra around the bases near Saigon, where she performed “These Boots are Made for Walkin,’” which became a soldiers’ song.
LiVolsi and Sinatra became lifelong friends. She came to Stamford in 1993 to help LiVolsi launch a mayoral campaign, ultimately unsuccessful.
LiVolsi served on the Stamford Board of Representatives, was appointed assistant corporation counsel, and helped lead several charitable organizations. He took legal cases that changed lives – one sparked a rent strike for public-housing tenants, another forced the city to collect garbage at condo complexes, and another required the city to allow women to become police officers.
His accomplishments tell the story of the Vietnam generation, Pavia said.
Like LiVolsi, two-thirds of those who served were volunteers, not draftees. They were the best-educated troops the U.S. had ever sent into combat – like LiVolsi, four out of five had a high school diploma or better.
Data shatters decades-old stereotypes of those who served in Vietnam, Pavia said. A Veterans Administration study found no difference in drug use between them and their non-veteran counterparts. And they have been successful in life – their personal income significantly exceeds that of non-veterans in the same age group.
It didn’t feel that way to the soldiers who returned home after Vietnam, usually in uniform, alone on a commercial airline – straight from the jungle to JFK Airport, Pavia said.
“Cops, cabbies, and bus drivers would tell them to go into a bathroom and change clothes so people wouldn’t shout at them or throw things at them or spit on them,” said Pavia.
Unlike World War II soldiers who returned to jobs, Vietnam soldiers couldn’t find them.
“There was a stigma against them. They had it tough, and they had to go it alone,” Pavia said. “When we interviewed them years later, we didn’t find one who wasn’t proud of his service. But that took years to happen, because they and the war were painted with one brush.”
A few years before he died, LiVolsi talked about things Vietnam taught him. One was to respect all life. Before Vietnam, he said, if a squirrel ran in front of his car he would just run it over. After Vietnam, “I would rather run into a tree than hit a squirrel.”
The attorney and onetime tank commander had a dream case. It would end, he said, in a law prohibiting politicians from declaring war until they had served “in a combat zone for at least a month.”
When he died in late February at 83, LiVolsi was surrounded by Bridgenne, his wife of 60 years, their two daughters and four grandchildren.