James Larocca, who spent a career in public service, including stints as a member of the New York State Public Service Commission, the board of the Long Island Power Authority, and as dean of Southampton College, reflects on his service in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy, his concerns about the plight of American veterans and his upcoming speech at Sag Harbor’s Memorial Day observance this Monday morning at the American Legion on Bay Street.
By Stephen J. Kotz
Let’s start with your naval career. What did you do in Vietnam?
I spent almost all of the calendar year 1967 in Vietnam. I was the operations officer of a mobile river patrol unit for 35-foot fiberglass gunboats. We were actually stationed on a 325-foot converted World War II LST. In my second tour, I was on a salvage tug.
The river patrol idea in my judgment was as flawed from every possible point of view. They adapted a pleasure boat made up in the Puget Sound that used water jets like they use in a Jacuzzi. It was an example of a brilliant idea from the Pentagon that had no practical application in the Mekong Delta. They were unreliable, they were unsafe. The very concept of using this kind of craft to patrol tens of thousands of miles of water was not going to work. It was never tested until someone up in Seattle convinced the military to buy these boats.
You were involved in the planning for the county’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Brookhaven. How did that come about?
[Former Assemblyman] John Behan and I co-chaired the committee that built that. They wanted a Republican and a Democrat. I was the Democrat. County Executive Peter Cohalan told us we had $40,000 or $50,000 to work with. I guess they thought we were going to put up a plaque outside the county building. Subsequently we raised $1.5 million to make something worthy.
Before that, I had not been active in veterans’ affairs. I had put the war behind me. I was moving on. That experience brought me into the world of veterans’ affairs. It introduced me to the plight of a lot of people who were still not fully returned from the war, if you will, people who were still struggling with the V.A., still struggling with their experience. I came to understand that it’s important how a nation expresses its gratitude to those who serve and how it meets its obligations to those who serve.
Are we doing enough for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Absolutely not, but we never do. Sometimes we do better than at other times, but even though we have public events, public monuments, public expressions, we also miss the day-to-day struggles, the day-to-day needs of those who serve. I think that has never been truer than it is now.
The people who serve now are serving in a war that is detached for most Americans because there is no draft, [a war] that is not understood very well by most Americans and, absolutely critically, involves multiple deployments. The nation is not hostile, or particularly indifferent. People are just not involved. The longest war in the nation’s history involves 2 percent of the population. The reality is it doesn’t touch most people.
What do you plan to talk about at next week’s observance?
I’ll ask what it means to memorialize, to honor. These are words we use authentically and honestly, but I think we have to ask what it is that those of this generation who are serving now need—and what they deserve. The answer is a lot. Their lives are interrupted repeatedly, the wounds they suffer are serious, and the circumstances of their deployment are often terrible. How are we, as a grateful, caring nation going to respond? A name on a plaque is not enough.