Several decades have passed since he saw the ravages of war, left like so many other veterans to deal with psychological trauma after returning home from Vietnam.
And even though the two years he served as a forensics specialist during the height of the fighting were only a tiny fraction of his life, Joe Sparacio cannot shake the memories.
“It never goes away,” he said.
Sparacio, who turns 70 in August, has made it a point to meet with fellow veterans at a patriotic coffee shop here in Mooresville over the past decade or so. Remaining a fixture for not only Vietnam vets but also those of other wars, Richard’s Coffee Shop hosts weekly gatherings, drawing vets from around Iredell County and beyond.
Like himself, “they have to assimilate their memories,” Sparacio said.
And he now is serving as the president of a newly formed chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in Mooresville. Chartered by Congress in the 1970s, the organization has grown to include several hundred chapters across the country.
The chapter was named after the owner of the coffee shop, Richard Warren, who served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He died of complications from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant in 2009.
Gathering once a month at the Mooresville Public Library, the chapter is seeking ways to raise money, and awareness, for veterans who are disabled or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These things have to be brought to the table,” Sparacio said. Referring to the psychological effects of war, he added, “As soon as they all get together, they all start talking … the quicker they’ll be able to help themselves.”
The chapter was formed by a group of veterans from Concord, which has its own chapter. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Mooresville group started taking shape in March and has grown to include dozens of members.
The reason was the popularity of Richard’s Coffee Shop.
In addition to offering free coffee to veterans on Thursdays, it has evolved into a living history museum that features a relics such as a Norden bombsight from a World War II bomber and scraps of metal from the the World Trade Center collapse that a group of vets hauled to Mooresville.
It also offers outreach and educational programs that have grown to include a number of veterans and schoolchildren alike.
The idea of the Welcome Home Veterans Living History Museum is to “preserve … what they have done, what they have given for their country,” said Larry Thomas, chairman of the museum’s board.
Having served as a U.S. Army air-traffic controller in Vietnam, the 68-year-old started volunteering at the North Main Street coffee shop about three years ago, around the time he retired as a project manager for a hardware store chain.
It is where veterans “can talk about things they can never talk to anyone else about,” Thomas said.
For Sparacio, the gatherings have proved helpful.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in the late 1960s, he spent two years identifying the dead. “I put hands on over 10,000 soldiers,” he recalled.
He worked as a funeral director in New York as part of a family business before leaving for war, but he was unable to resume the job after returning home.
“When I came home, it haunted me daily,” he said, noting that he eventually took a job in the insurance industry.
And even though he has reintegrated into society – he married, having three children and receiving a second college degree, in English – memories of the war linger.
In the early 2000s, Sparacio was diagnosed with PTSD and he continues seeing psychologists.
“I thought that I was able to try to put it in my past,” he said, “but that didn’t work as well as I thought.”
Despite that, Sparacio has perhaps found some solace in the company of other vets.
“Some days they get together and they talk, some days they don’t talk,” he said. “A veteran needs another veteran.”
Jake Flannick is a freelance writer. Have a story for Jake? Email him at email@example.com
To learn more about VVA Chapter 1107 in Mooresville, call Joe Sparacio at 704-838-6256. For information about Richard’s Coffee Shop and its living history museum, visit www.welcomehomeveteran.org/.