Vietnamese seminary sisters share songs, stories with vets in Middletown

MIDDLETOWN — A serendipitous meeting between a local veteran and Vietnamese student at a recent Memorial Day parade has led to a friendship Jerry Augustine is convinced may become a lifelong bond.

The Vietnam-era serviceman was wearing his Disabled American Veterans uniform a couple weeks ago at the procession in Cromwell and was approached by Sister Mary Oanh Nguyen, who is studying English at Holy Apostles in Cromwell.

They have been in Connecticut for eights months and plan to return home to teach the language after eight years at the seminary.

The two got to talking and exchanged email addresses. Shortly afterward, Augustine invited her to attend the Russell Library veterans writing group he has been a member of since its inception six years ago.

He laughed when recalling her enthusiasm.

“She emailed back, asking ‘Can I bring four of my friends and my teacher?’”

The young women sang two songs from their homeland.

“The first we sang in Latin, the ‘Salve Regina.’ It is a song to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This song is important to us because we always sing this song at night in our communities and we remember Mary and ask her to pray for us,” Nguyen said Thursday by email.

“The other song we sang in Vietnamese. It is a song of thanksgiving. It is a song of giving thanks to God for everything that has happened in our lives. That song is called ‘Khúc Cảm Tạ,’” she said.

“It was like being in a concert hall,” Augustine said.

“The visit brought back positive memories of interactions between the veterans and the Vietnamese people they met during their tours,” writing group co-leader Liz Petry, who is married to Larry Riley, a Vietnam vet and commander of American Legion Post 75, said by email.

The veterans group, which has drawn a number of area vets over the years, will be publishing a book shortly with individual stories about their time in service. Petry leads the veteran writers with librarian Christy Billings.

Petry marveled at the women’s “melodious voices and ineffable harmonies. The emotion they conveyed made me cry, and the veterans were obviously moved, too.

“Everyone used a map to compare places where the men had been stationed with the villages where the sisters grew up. The veterans also were fascinated by the description of changes in the country — that Saigon is no longer a beautiful city and that the government is slowly relaxing its restrictions on religious practice,” Petry said.

While younger, Augustine, a military vehicle enthusiast who also writes for Garage Magazine, won both the Mr. New England and Mr. Northeast America competitions, something, along with running, he took up to help him ease repercussions he feels from combat decades ago. He ran to the top of the Empire State Building nearly 10 times, said Augustine, who spoke from Trumbull where he was preparing to row and kayak.

“I had such an interesting experience while I was in Vietnam that I just want to get it all down,” said Augustine, who’s working on a biography.

“It had a devastating effect on my family life. I have to get this all out,” he said.

The seminary students were delighted to meet the men, Nguyen said. “We were also surprised because we did not expect that they would remember so much about their time in Vietnam. We saw that each person had different emotions when we talked to them about when they served in the war in Vietnam, she said.

“We noticed from their photographs how much they loved the children they met in Vietnam. We were very surprised when one man spoke to us in Vietnamese — that he could still remember and speak Vietnamese to us,” Nguyen added.

Writer Harvey Goldstein, who retired from the Air Force after serving in Vietnam as an airman first class, tried communicating with the women.

“I tried to speak to [the sisters] in Vietnamese, but, unfortunately, my dialect and their dialects aren’t the same. They probably understood about 25 to 30 percent of what I said. They’re pretty well-versed in English, but some of them are having more difficulty than others,” said the Branford resident.

Goldstein has been putting his thoughts to paper for 50 years — since high school.

“I don’t knew many things well [but] I’ve always written well,” he said.

He and his photographer brother had a studio in Middletown for some time and Goldstein, who grew up in Middletown, spent his career editing various photography publications in the area.

Already, his and others’ friendships have paid dividends.

The members were slated to attend an end-of-school-year party Thursday night during which the women planned to cook Vietnamese dishes, something Goldstein and Augustine are excited about.

“I was in Cayman Province, 35 miles northwest of Saigon, near the Cambodian border, right on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Our mission was to stop the infiltrating coming down from North Vietnam down toward the capitol city in 1966-67,” said Augustine, who retired as a specialist fourth class.

“I have so many stories to tell. I almost lost my life six times,” he said. A bomb landed on his foot but didn’t explode. Turned out, it was a dud.

“The [enemy] could have just shot me from a hole in the ground where they were, things like that,” Augustine said. “I was inside a well, underwater — luckily my sergeant pulled me back out. I had 50 pounds of gear on me.

“I feel I had a guardian angel, and got to come home. There’s a reason for me to be here because now I help out veterans,” he added.

Stories such as these and others allow the veterans to express their feelings through the written word. Members are given a prompt and 30 minutes of writing. The next week, each reads his work.

They meet Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at the Russell Library, 123 Broad St., Middletown. All are welcome. For information, visit or call 860-347-2528.