An urgent email went out from Kathy Sargent, a member of St. Frances de Chantal Catholic Church in Wantagh, at 3 p.m. on Jan. 29. “I’ve got a funeral tomorrow for a Vietnam vet who was awarded the Purple Heart,” her message said. “He died at the VA in Northport, and there will only be three people at his funeral, because he never married and had no children.”
Hoping for a few more attendees, Sargent asked if John Sottnik, the email’s recipient and the third vice commander of Wantagh’s American Legion Post 1273, could share the news with his post’s members. Sottnik agreed that the combat veteran, Fred T. Haag, 72, who also earned two Bronze Star medals, deserved a more fitting sendoff than an empty church on a Thursday morning. So he made some calls.
“I knew it would be difficult to get people there with short notice,” Sottnik said, “so I sent out an email to all my contacts in the community and elected officials I would normally notify of our events.” He also contacted the Wantagh Chamber of Commerce, whose second vice president, social media consultant MariLynne Rich, posted the notice on the chamber’s Facebook page.
Joseph Ingino, Southern District director of the Vietnam Veterans of America New York State Council, got the news at around 6 p.m. Ingino, a member of the American Legion’s Rolling Thunder motorcycle unit, wanted the bike contingent to be part of the ceremony, but the group had a commitment to escort another veteran on his final journey to Calverton National Cemetery the following morning. “But I can’t ride anymore because of all my injuries,” Ingino said, “so I decided to come and represent them myself.”
Word continued to be passed among American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Bellmore, Levittown, Merrick, Rockville Centre and Wantagh. The Nassau County Police Department’s mounted and motorcycle units got the word, and representatives of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, as well as members of the Wantagh Volunteer Fire Department, came as well. In the end, Haag’s niece Tina Flaherty estimated that roughly 300 people came to pay their respects, including Ralph Esposito, director of Nassau County’s Veterans Service Agency, Wantagh Chamber of Commerce President Cathy McGrory Powell and County Legislator Steve Rhoads.
Many with no personal connection to the armed services gathered at St. Francis de Chantal, too.
As the hearse bearing Haag’s body and the limousine carrying his nieces and nephew arrived for the 11:15 Mass, the honor and color guards and members of the uniformed services snapped to attention as the coffin was escorted into the church.
Haag, a native of Brooklyn, was 19 in 1966, when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Southeast Asia as a member of the First Battalion of the 58th Infantry Regiment, 197th Infantry Brigade of the First Division. A sharpshooter, he received the Purple Heart after being wounded in the arm.
Haag was deployed to South Vietnam during a period when U.S. troop strength was at its height, with more than a half-million soldiers and Marines stationed in the country. He took part in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. His service coincided with the 1968 Tet Offensive, a major push by North Vietnamese regular troops and guerrillas known as the Viet Cong that at one point occupied more than 40 percent of the country, before American counteroffensives drove them back.
Despite the passage of more than 50 years, “he was never the same after he came back,” Flaherty said.
Visibly moved, she thanked all in attendance for the respect they had shown her uncle.
As Haag’s casket was moved to the waiting hearse for interment at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, Frank Conlon Jr., of Rockville Centre, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Association, played taps on his silver bugle. The clear, bell-like tones hung in the air over the somber assembly of veterans and serving military, police, firefighters and civilians.
Esposito said he was pleased by the turnout, but added that it is a “disgrace” that veterans like Haag received so little help despite years of suffering from service-related issues.
State Sen. John Brooks, who took over as head of the Senate Veterans Committee last January and is himself a veteran, has helped shepherd several initiatives through the Legislature, including measures to help veterans with Agent Orange-related health issues. Agent Orange was an herbicide widely used throughout the Southeast Asia theater to reduce vegetation and improve visibility for aerial attacks. It has long been linked with disorders including leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma and prostate and respiratory cancers, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Haag died of cancer, although it was unknown whether his illness was related to exposure to Agent Orange.