Editors Note: With Memorial Day next weekend, we’ve dedicated our editorial space to George Petrzelka, who reminds us why we celebrate those who serve.
This Memorial Day parade will have one less veteran marching from Coleman Square to the Walter J. Wetzel Triangle in Howard Beach. James A. Luisi, a decorated Vietnam war hero, passed away on April 7 following a recent personal battle with liver cancer. His 43-year war with service-related disabilities has ended, but his spirit lives on with everyone who knew him.
My brother-in-law Jimmy (I called him Mr. Jim) served as a medic in the Big Red One. On April 18, 1968, he was blown up by a mortar round while attempting to rescue a wounded comrade, George Adams. George did not survive and Jimmy was critically wounded. Upon his arrival back to the U.S for extensive medical care, he weighted just 78 pounds and was unable to walk or talk. Suffering from head trauma and multiple wounds to his extremities, Jimmy was confined to rehabilitation at the St. Albans and Brooklyn VA facilities for seven months. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
Jimmy was inflicted with injuries to his head, torso and areas of the body that we would cringe to think of. Missing fingers and toes are only part of it. Muscle and nerve damage limited hand and arm movement and years later would require custom shoes and a leg brace. He also had to undergo a cornea transplant. Having served in one of the areas subjected to heavy doses of Agent Orange, his blood contamination and liver failures were determined to be the long term results of that exposure. Many Vietnam veterans are only recently experiencing the grave medical effects of such exposure.
One would think that someone surviving that experience and enduring such debilitating injuries would have an eternal grudge. Vietnam veterans didn’t get a welcome home parade. Some unfortunate veterans turned to drugs and alcohol. Many became homeless. Jimmy was the exception.
After over a year of rehab at VA facilities and home care, Jimmy went to church. He attended mass every day at Our Lady of Grace whenever he was physically able and actually carried the keys to open its doors first thing in the morning. He never drank alcoholic beverages or used profanity. If you looked up the words “friendly” and “courteous” in the dictionary, you might find his picture there. He never complained and was more concerned for others than himself – even when he was in pain and suffering. Jimmy was quick to note the humor in just about anything and had a wonderful laugh that remains imprinted in my brain.
Jimmy loved God and his church and the priests of OLG who recognized him as a devout Catholic. He shuffled to church every day, restricted by his leg brace and usually wore out his custom-made shoes within a few months. The highest honor for Jimmy was receiving Communion from Pope John Paul when he conducted mass as Aqueduct Race Track during his 1995 visit to the U.S. Only a handful of people were selected for that honor and a photo of Jimmy’s moment was published in the New York Times the next day.
Another high point in Jimmy’s life occurred a few years ago when, thanks to the internet, he was contacted by the sister of his deceased military comrade, George Adams. She wanted to know the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death and need to meet the person who tried to save him. Both George’s parents and sister, Julie, traveled from Houston, Texas to personally spend time with Jimmy.
Sitting on the front porch of his home directly opposite the Wetzel Memorial Triangle, Jimmy appreciated his ability to see the colors wave from its flagpole despite the frequent distractions of pet owners who seem to regard that Memorial as a dog toilet. If he was lucky, one of us would take him to shop at the local military post exchange and commissary and he would repeatedly thank us throughout the trip and afterward. It didn’t take much to make him happy.
One Election Day 2008, Jimmy was hospitalized under emergency conditions for liver-related internal bleeding. He remained in Jamaica Hospital and St. Albans VA rehab facilities for two months. Although he was left physically weakened, he was chosen as Grand Marshal for the 2009 Memorial Day Parade and was transported by car to lead the parade. He was easily recognizable by his huge smile.
Over the past two years, Jimmy became progressively weaker and underwent several medical tests and procedures. Still, he never complained even though he realized that his condition was terminal. On April 7, his liver gave up and bled out. That he survived for 43 years after his injuries is a testament to his family, particularly his mother, Florence, who dedicated her life to improve his.
It is often recited at Memorial Day services that “the tree of liberty is nourished by he blood of patriots.” If only the world could resolve peace among nations and simply rely on rainfall to nourish that tree.
By George C. Petrzelka