REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- It's been decades since Joe Bongiovanni walked in the boots of a Marine. But he carries with him the life lessons of duty, honor and comradeship he learned during his service.
Bongiovanni wore the uniform for four years during the Vietnam War, fighting in the most bitterly fought Battle of the Tet Offensive in 1968. More than 40 years later, he still considers himself in service to his nation and the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen who wear the uniform today. His lifelong commitment to duty shows in his efforts to lead the Semper Fi Community Task Force of North Alabama, his contributions to the organization's Hero's Week for wounded warriors and his participation in several local military-related events.
"When you take the uniform off for the final time, it doesn't mean you stop serving," Bongiovanni said. "My passion is supporting our troops and also the first responders in our communities. My passion is to make sure our troops are honored. I'm so proud of my opportunity to serve, and I'm so proud for all of the men and women who served with me and who still serve with me today."
Besides leading the Semper Fi Community Task Force, Bongiovanni is also the vice president of the Semper Fi Riders motorcycle club. He is a member of the VFW and American Legion, and is a supporter of the Marine Corps Toys for Tots and Operation Stand Down. Bongiovanni was recognized for his volunteer work in support of the military at the Veterans Day Dinner on Nov. 10, when he was named the Veteran of the Year by the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organizations Coalition.
Although he was told he would be recognized at the dinner, Bongiovanni did not expect to receive one of the highest local recognitions for veterans.
"I never dreamed that they were going to give me that award. I was overwhelmed, to say the least," he said.
But, when he heard the introductory words "This year's Veteran of the Year was born in Sicily ...," Bongiovanni knew he was the one.
"When you receive an award like this, it's something you share with others who have served with you," he said. "You know you were just a small part of something much bigger. I am deeply honored that I was the one who received this award on behalf of those who have worked with me to help our troops. I've never been at a loss for words. But, because of this award, I will speak out even more. I hope I am a role model for other people to get involved and serve."
Besides his work in support of the military, Bongiovanni is known throughout North Alabama for his exuberant and boisterous commercials for Serra Toyota in Decatur, where he is the general manager. He speaks with a slight accent, a carryover from his days as a child in Italy. He immigrated to the U.S. at age 11.
"My dad's brother came here in the 1930s and my dad came here in the mid 1950s," Bongiovanni said. "After the war, things were not all that great in Italy. Like any other immigrant, my dad wanted things to be better for his family. My dad was here three years before my mom, and my brother and sister and I came over. I was the oldest, and I remember it took nine days to cross the Atlantic. I remember passing the Statue of Liberty in the harbor at New York."
His family settled in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and, at age 19, Bongiovanni joined the Marines.
"I was a voracious reader. I loved reading history, especially stories about the battles in the Pacific during World War II," he said. "The Marines in those stories were especially inspirational to me. And, at night, when the television signed off, they would play the national anthem and show the Marines placing the flag on Iwo Jima. It was so inspirational. I knew I would probably be drafted. So, I went ahead and volunteered."
With very little military experience in the family, Bongiovanni's parents didn't have much advice to give their son in his new career. They knew he would end up in Vietnam. But all they could do was pray and hope for their eldest son's safe return from war.
"I was headstrong and I knew what I wanted to do," Bongiovanni said. "My mom and dad were very supportive. Like any parents, they worried about their son. But the good Lord watched over me and I came back."
Bongiovanni, a combat squad leader, was stationed in the Leatherneck Square region of the Quang Tri Province for seven months. He fought beside his fellow Marines during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 and the Battle of Dai Do in May 1968.
"We suffered a lot of casualties," he said. "I was frightened. I was scared. If anyone told you different, they are not being truthful. We fought to take care of each other, to take care of our buddies."
Those battles were crucial to the U.S. strategy. They also led to an eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.
"This was the turning point against the war. We had never lost a battle in Vietnam. But we lost the battle of public perception," Bongiovanni said. "We defeated the North Viet Cong. But the image projected was they had not been beaten. Our morale suffered. The nation was in conflict about the war. Young men were being killed. We lost 58,000 and so many more injured. It was taking a toll on the country."
Like many Vietnam veterans, the return reception was not welcoming for Bongiovanni.
"The Vietnam War was not a popular war. There were no parades or any fanfare when we came back," he said. "I want to make sure that same thing doesn't happen to our young men and women who are returning today from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I want to make sure they are recognized for their sacrifice and their service."
And that's at the heart of the work Bongiovanni does on behalf of the military today. He takes tremendous joy and satisfaction from knowing that he has helped ensure that North Alabama veterans are appreciated, respected and honored.
"When you serve in the military, it never leaves you," he said. "As a Marine, I know the saying 'Once a Marine, always a Marine' is true, and I think it is true for all the services. There is an esprit de corps - a common spirit of pride, honor and devotion - that is instilled in you and stays with you for as long as you live. For a Marine, we still have that bond and it's called the Marine Corps and it's strong.
"I remember coming out of boot camp, and how motivated and eager we were to serve and perform. The military brings out the great qualities in its people. It brings out good character, good moral judgment and respect."
While the Vietnam War - and the wars prior to it -- was fought with a military consisting primarily of draftees, today's wars are fought by young men and women who volunteer despite the danger and sacrifice. For that reason, Bongiovanni thinks of today's generation as the greatest generation yet.
"Our young men and women are committed to the mission. We have had great generations. But this generation is an all-volunteer service generation," he said. "When you talk to them, you can see how they are eager to contribute and how proud they are for what they do. The Army and the Marines get the cream of the crop, they take the best. The nation can feel secure and proud knowing the type of young people who are serving this country."
Among the many different groups and activities he supports through his volunteer work, Bongiovanni most enjoys the Semper Fi Community Task Force Hero's Week, during which several wounded Soldiers and Marines and their spouses are invited to North Alabama to enjoy a week's worth of activities planned around Veterans Day.
Bongiovanni takes the time during the week to get to know many of the wounded warriors who participate. Two years ago, one of those warriors - Lance Cpl. John Herman - presented Bongiovanni with his four military medals, including a Purple Heart, that now hang in a plaque with his picture at Bongiovanni's Decatur business.
"He told me 'I feel like you are my dad' and he gave me his medals from his first tour in Iraq," Bongiovanni said. "We stay in touch and he has done another tour in Iraq since then. But this gift of his is very special to me."
Although his volunteer work and love for the military take up a lot of his time, Bongiovanni is also a businessman and family man. The Marines and his experience in Vietnam are very much a part of his everyday life, and are expressed in his leadership, commitment and can-do attitude.
"My wife said I should have stayed in the Marines," Bongiovanni said. "At the time, I felt I had served my duty and I wanted to do other things. But the Marines, and all the men and women who serve in the military are still very close to my heart. And I love being part of this community, the most patriotic community I've had the pleasure to live in."