The Decatur Daily
By Ronnie Thomas
Joe Bongiovanni didn’t speak English when he arrived at Niagara Falls, N.Y., from his native Sicily as a wide-eyed 11-year-old.
“We only went to fifth grade in the old country, and I had almost finished school when we immigrated to America,” he said. “They put me back in third grade here.”
But in learning the new language, he became as familiar with the Latin phrase — Semper Fidelis — as he did with English terms such as “let’s play ball.”
That’s because Bongiovanni buried himself in history lessons as he moved forward with his reading skills.
He became intrigued with books about World War II and the Korean War, and enamored of the Marine Corps and its abbreviated slogan, Semper Fi — Always Faithful.
“The Marines are the first to fight,” he said. “I was proud of my country, and I wanted to do the right thing and fight for my country.”
Bongiovanni did that as a 19-year-old Marine in Vietnam, serving as a combat squad leader.
He continues to support his country by boosting the morale of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For that, and for giving back to area residents as well, the Decatur resident will receive the Humanitarian Award on July 4 at the 2011 Spirit of America Festival at Point Mallard Park.
The award is part of a tribute to Vietnam veterans during the 50th anniversary year of the Vietnam War.
“I couldn’t think of a better person than Joe to receive the award,” said Joe Shelley, 64, of Madison, who is vice chairman of the Semper Fi Community Task Force of North Alabama, which Bongiovanni serves as chairman. “He’s modest about his service and one of the most patriotic persons I know. He does a lot in the community that people don’t realize to help our veterans.”
Shelley served as a captain in an artillery battery in the mountains of Da Nang in 1964.
Bob Marshall, 50, of Huntsville is the previous chairman of the task force.
“Joe is a very passionate and great-hearted man,” said Marshall, a former Marine aviator who served from 1983 until 2004, gaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. “He’s never forgotten the sacrifices and the cost of military service in combat. I think he was probably never recognized for that, as so many thousands of Marines, sailors and soldiers serving in Vietnam weren’t, upon their return home. I think that is an indelible memory in the minds of most Vietnam veterans.”
And Bongiovanni, 63, general manager of Serra Toyota in Decatur, who also is a major supporter of the annual Marine Corps Toys for Tots program and numerous other charities, said he is fortunate to meet other veterans, dating to World II.
“I believe the greatest generation we have is the young men and women serving now,” said Bongiovanni, who came to Decatur in 2000 from Bradenton, Fla., where he was a partner in a Toyota dealership. “Each generation steps up to the plate, and those serving today are all volunteers.”
He volunteered for Vietnam in 1967 for a 13-month tour that landed him in rat-infested bunkers and some of the most vicious battles of the war, such as the Tet Offensive in late January and early February 1968 and the Battle of Dai Do that May.
He also read newspapers from the states, finding it disturbing that troops didn’t have the support they believed they deserved. That really came to light for the veterans as they returned home, he said, some getting spat upon simply because they answered their country’s call.
Task force member
Determined to avert such treatment for veterans in the future, Bongiovanni became involved with the Semper Fi Community Task Force of North Alabama, established in 2006.
In April 2007, the Marine Corps initiated its first Heroes Week during Veterans Day weekend and brought 17 Wounded Warriors to the area.
In November, more than 60 Wounded Warriors and their spouses will be in North Alabama for a week of activities.
“Battle shock, field fatigue or post traumatic stress syndrome, whatever term you wish to call it, has always been there,” Bongiovanni said. “Seeing all the destruction and buddies being killed and maimed affects the psyche. It’s great that our community turns out to welcome these heroes.”
Eyes of warriors
He said the gratitude is seen in the eyes of warriors such as Lance Cpl. John Hermann of Wisconsin.
“He was so appreciative and thankful for his visit here,” Bongiovanni said. “He sent me his rack (medals). He died twice on the operating table in Iraq. He served another tour there and is now serving in Afghanistan.”
Bongiovanni said he has attended the Spirit of America Festival several times in the past.
“I got to meet heroes then,” he said. “When I was notified I’d be the recipient of this award, I was somewhat surprised. But as it gets closer and it really begins to sink in, I feel really proud and happy. I wish I could share this with the men who served with me.”
He and Denice, his wife of more than 30 years, have two sons, Christopher, 26, of Huntsville, and Jonathan, 22, of Decatur.