By CAROL COMEGNO
The enemy was about to overrun a radio outpost in northwest Vietnam when Army Green Beret Jon Caviani decided to try to hold them off single-handedly.
He recovered a stray machine gun, stood upright and sprayed two advancing ranks with fire, killing many North Vietnamese and suffering several wounds in that exchange in June 1971.
But he was immediately captured and remained a prisoner of war until his release in 1973. He was in the last group of POWs returned from a North Vietnam prison camp that soldiers nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton.
Caviani later was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award.
"We've paid a mental, emotional and quite often physical price for freedom, but society sometimes forgets about us," Caviani told a group of fellow POWs Wednesday night on board the battleship USS New Jersey, now a Delaware River waterfront museum.
"But for us today to say we are forgotten heroes, that is wrong. We are not forgotten by our country, which continues to locate the remains of some of the thousands missing since World War II."
Caviani, 59, of Columbia, Calif., was the guest speaker at a ceremony honoring 13 former POWs who are members of the Ex-Prisoners of War, Neglected Heroes chapter, based in Burlington County. The county's Military and Veterans Affairs Committee sponsored the event on the nation's most decorated battleship.
Drill and color guard units from McGuire Air Force Base performed, and the Coast Guard Band from the Cape May Training Center played "The Star-Spangled Banner" to a crowd of several hundred gathered on the ship's fantail.
Vincent Vizachero of Burlington Township, chapter commander, said it wasn't always the case that the government cared about POWs.
After POWs were released in 1945 toward the end of World War II, Vizachero said, he and many others couldn't obtain medical treatment for conditions suffered during their imprisonment.
"We were treated brutally not just by the enemy but by the military and the Veterans Administration then," said Vizachero.
He said POW benefits did not improve until 1981, when Congress passed a law deeming POWs eligible for medical disability for injuries and health conditions suffered at the hands of the enemy.
Vizachero is a former Army soldier who was captured in France by the Germans in 1944 and forced to do hard labor. He said he weighed 67 pounds when he was freed.
Today, Vizachero helps former POWs file claims for compensation as the service officer for the national Ex- Prisoners of War organization.