Orginally published in the The Glastonbury Citizen
by Elizabeth Regan
Veterans were elbow to elbow with other veterans and their most ardent supporters in the
cafeteria of Portland High School last Friday night, as they were treated to a community dinner in honor of their service. It was a vastly different reception than the
one Higganum resident Arthur Wiknik Jr. said he received in Windsor Locks upon his return from Vietnam in 1970 as a veteran of the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
The controversial campaign resulted in 72 American and South Vietnamese deaths on a
mountain that became known as a meat grinder. Wiknik was a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“I arrived at Bradley International Airport in uniform, my chest full of campaign ribbons and bursting with pride befitting a soldier returning from war,” he wrote in his 2005 book, Nam-Sense. “I sat in a large waiting area while travelers filtered in. I was the only soldier in the room. As the area filled, empty seats near me were left vacant until, eventually, people stood against the walls rather than sit beside me.”
But on Friday, there wasn’t an empty seat to be seen at the Veterans Day event as Wiknik
joined approximately 100 veterans and their guests to partake in the dinner spread laid out
by Seby Milardo of Melilli Caffe and Grill. Veterans from World War II through the post-
9/11 era sat at tables adorned with handmade cards from students at Gildersleeve School.
Wiknik said he’d heard of the dinner thanks to a veteran from Middletown. Wiknik has built an extensive network of connections in the veteran community through his book, published by Casemate Publishers. He takes on a handful of speaking engagements each year, he said; he’s also appeared on television and local radio stations.
Wiknik was one of 13 Americans featured in Vietnam in HD on the History Channel. Their
stories comprise the six-part documentary that first aired in 2011 under the tagline “It’s not the war we know. It’s the war they fought.” “When I was 18, I bought a new car: a 1968
Camaro. I just got a new job at an aircraft company. I was making pretty good money. I had a girlfriend I was crazy about. Then I got a draft notice. To me that was such a crushing blow, because I had everything I ever wanted and it was going to be taken away from me,” he saidin the film.He was only in Vietnam for a month whenthe Battle of Hamburger Hill began. Known in Army parlance as a Shake ‘n Bake Sergeant – or Instant NCO – Wiknik had gone through accelerated training to become a non-commissioned
officer to supplement a rapidly depleting force. Wiknik said Friday he was chosen for the
leadership role after he managed to escape a mock prisoner of war camp during an escape
and evasion training exercise at Fort Polk, La. “I was the only guy who escaped that night,” he explained. “So the Army figures, ‘This guyhas something on the ball. He has instincts. Let’s send him to NCO school.’”
But rising to the level of a non-commissioned officer in such a short time with no wartime
experience was fraught with its own challenges. He arrived in Vietnam as an infantry squad leader in charge of soldiers who had already lived through more than he’d ever seen.
“They didn’t want to listen to me,” he said. That changed on Hamburger Hill, when the
baby-faced sergeant proved on the field of battle that he could be trusted with the lives of his soldiers. r that I had no problems,” he said. Wiknik is at work on a second book that picks up where his first left off, chronicling several years during which he said he drank to excess and dated wild women. It’s a phase that endedwhen he met 20-year-old Betty on a blind date arranged by their sisters. While the chemistry was not instant, the two soldiered through their first few meetings purely to appease the familial
instigators, according to Arthur Wiknik. The rest is history. They’ve been married 39 years, with three daughters and two grandchildren.
On Friday, Betty was once again Arthur’s date. Each veteran was invited to bring a spouse
or significant other. Seby Milardo has been catering the event for four years now, having taken over from Frank Cavaliere when he moved into the baker’s former space in 2013.
Mellili’s has been a presence in the area for almost 20 years, with previous locations in
Cromwell and Middletown. “We want to thank you guys for what you did for us. This is just a little that we can give back,” Milardo told diners before they lined up at the buffet to get their plates of pasta, meatloaf, potatoes, vegetables and salad. Milardo assured the veterans he’d see them again next year. Ret. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Reg Farrington, an
active member of Portland’s veterans community, said people came out from East Hampton, Cromwell, Middletown, Glastonbury, and East Hartford to enjoy the dinner.
“It was a fine meal and we all owe our thanks to Seby Milardo and his family,” Farrington
said. Middletown veteran Dortha Cool Willetts, who served in the Air Force in the late 1950s and then as an Army reservist for almost 25 years, proudly donned her Army Green service uniform for the occasion. Willetts said she was one of the first women
in the Army Reserves to be promoted to chief warrant officer 4, the second-highest warrant officer rank. Known at the time as “Chief Cool,” she spoke highly of her role and responsibilities in military intelligence. She said she mades sure she did the same things men were expected to do – and she was treated the same way because
As guests were filing out of the cafeteria after Friday night’s dinner, the wife of one of the
veterans walked up to Willetts to thank her for her service. “I wanted to go in the military and my dad wouldn’t let me,” the woman confided. Willetts was both smiling and serious in her reply: “You should have run off and done it!”
What people are saying about NAM SENSE
“…the best, most accurate portrayal of the life of an Infantryman in Vietnam… A family member, girlfriend, or fiancée of a soldier who went to Vietnam will find this book most illuminating. For all the rest of you, if you read only one book about a soldier’s life in Vietnam, read NamSense!”
…the best, most accurate portrayal of the life of an Infantryman in Vietnam… A family member, girlfriend, or fiancée of a soldier who went to Vietnam will find this book most illuminating. For all the rest of you, if you read only one book about a soldier’s life in Vietnam, read NamSense!
Namsense is an honest and realistic account of not only the author’s tour of duty but the tours of other Vietnam soldiers as well. I feel honored to have Arthur as an occasional guest on my radio show and my listeners are all the better for it.
“As a member of Sergeant Wiknik’s squad, I found Namsense to be an authentic and absorbing narrative that resonates with every combat GI’s story of survival in Vietnam.”
…provides an unflinching look at a year in the life of a grunt on Vietnam…